NEW BRAUNFELS — Wheels of justice generated some heat and even sparks Friday as Vietnam veteran Charles Michael Forsberg, 59, was sentenced to 49 years in prison on two less-than-a-gram drug possession charges.
The friction came as defense attorney Paul Goeke asked District Judge Dib Waldrip to turn on its ear a 25-years-to-life plea punishment range agreed to last week in exchange for the waiver of a jury trial.
Defense attorney Paul Goeke asked the judge to defer adjudication in the case — to not sentence the former Canyon Lake resident until after he had served the remaining likely eight years for probation violation.
Forsberg’s past eight felony convictions, brought up in this week’s sentencing process, include things such as armed robberies of New Braunfels pharmacies and home invasion burglary.
Under Goeke’s plan, if the defendant were to violate probation this time, he could be slapped with a life sentence.
The judge wasn’t convinced.
“The prosecution has a duty to the citizens of Texas, and more specifically, to the citizens of this county,” Waldrip told the defense. “With all due respect ... there’d have to be wheelbarrows of evidence before I’d consider deferred adjudication in this case ... Hypothetically speaking, Mr. Goeke, I will just tell you ... the likelihood of deferred adjudication is slim and none, and ... Slim has ridden out of town as well as None.”
“You could do it — and you could control his conduct in prison,” Goeke said of the threat of a life sentence.
“I don’t control anybody’s conduct in prison,” Waldrip said.
“Apparently, you have been convinced you don’t have the power you have,” Goeke said, calling his “residual sentencing authority” of a constitutional and statutory nature, and at the same time saying he was observing “almost a caricature of Comal County justice.”
It would be a “no-brainer,” Goeke said.
“You wouldn’t be giving him another chance, Judge. You’d be giving him a last chance.”
Waldrip recalled his days as a prosecutor, and times that stuck like a “burr under my saddle” when he could negotiate a deal but be undercut by a judge.
“A plea agreement either is or is not a contract,” Waldrip said.
Having the deal rug pulled out from under him evoked a promise from Chief Felony Prosecutor Sammy McCrary not to make deals with Goeke in the future.
“This is about the biggest load of crap I’ve ever heard in my life ... there’s some shady stuff going on here,” he said.
Forsberg told the court he got his GED, and joined the Army on his 17th birthday.
As a helicopter crew chief, his back was severely injured on his second tour of duty when his helicopter was shot down in a service-ending wreck, he said.
Medically evacuated out of country for both medical and psychiatric reasons, he spent time in hospital. He also was nursing a nasty heroin habit picked up where the drug was cheaper than cigarettes. A methadone program designed to help him kick heroin proved just as addicting, he said.
On medical disability for his back, an arm wound and Agent Orange, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and acute anxiety. His post-traumatic stress disorder — not a well-known disease at the time — was ignored initially — and then treated with experimental therapies that were harsh, he said.
“In 1972, when I got home, I was a very angry young man. We were lied to about Vietnam,” he said. “I started acting out and having a lot of PTSD symptoms.
“You know, there isn’t a day goes by that war doesn’t haunt me ... I’m telling you right now it’s no excuse for anything I’ve done ... If I could cut my arm off to make it go away ... and I mean this, if giving me a life sentence makes the world better, Judge, you give it to me,” he said.
Has Forsberg tried to kick his habit?
“I’ve tried. God!” he said, with a coughing sob. “I don’t even like it any more. I don’t like the life, I don’t like none of it.”
Earlier, Forsberg heard testimony from those he robbed at gunpoint at two New Braunfels pharmacies.
“I know now I hurt people, I scared the hell out of people ... This is 20 years ago, it’s still bothering me. I caused that,” he said.
He firmly denied the testimony of prosecution witnesses who said he had raped or abused three women, including a minor girl he drugged.
“I’ve done a lot of things that I’m not proud of ... (but) I’ve never hit a woman and I’ve never raped one,” he said.
His ex-wife had testified that he beat her. In his version, Forsberg said she had taken his disability money while he was in prison, lied about going straight, and that he was trying to help her.
When police pulled him over in a dramatic confrontation in 2008, he was on his way to Seguin to score some dope. Not a pretty picture, defense attorney Joe Garcia admitted.
“Who’s to blame for this, Michael?” Garcia asked Forsberg.
“I am,” the defendant said, his voice breaking.
“You’ve been consistently violating the law for 40 years, haven’t you?” McCrary asked.
“Yes, sir,” Forsberg said.
Waldrip cited Forsberg’s own words when considering his Army service in the war some Americans would rather forget.
“I do agree with Mr. Forsberg ... Whether it’s PTSD or just a terrible experience, it’s not necessarily an excuse,” the judge said. “It’s tragic, but it’s not an excuse.”
Hope for addiction, a sentence for justice
The two possession findings Forsberg pleaded to were for .4 grams of heroin and .7 grams of meth.
“This man has a history that makes him as dangerous as anyone ... This is felony number nine and 10,” McCrary said. “He should have been put away a long time ago — and I’m here with a less-than-a-gram drug case to do it.”
Defense attorney Joe Garcia pointed out his client’s flaws, saying he wasn’t going to “sugar-coat” it.
“He realizes, perhaps belatedly, it’s that part of him that he needs the most work on,” Garcia said. “We would argue that 25 years is a pretty stiff sentence for backsliding and feeling the urge to again put drugs in his body that he knew was just a road to nowhere.”
The defense referred to Waldrip’s “obvious sympathies” to addicts in recovery because of his drug court program that seeks to help Comal County offenders find recovery as well as justice.
“I know the court is sympathetic to how drug addiction figures in to commission of a crime,” Goeke said.
In the end, Waldrip expressed faith that Forsberg could continue to change — but said he would have to do that in prison.
“This is not about me changing the world, Mr. Forsberg. It’s about me trying to protect the community ... it’s not about me trying to rectify (past wrongs),” Waldrip said, quoting the Apostle Paul’s confession that he struggled not to do things he shouldn’t, and that he had a thorn in the flesh given “so that I might know it is His grace that is sufficient for me.”
“That does relate to me, it relates to you, it relates to everybody in this court room,” Waldrip said. “The bottom line is that Paul did some of his greatest work when he was in prison ... that might be your calling.
“You can say, ‘Damn them all!,’ or you can say, ‘Thank you for the opportunity to serve the Lord in prison.’ It’s up to you,” Waldrip said. “If you’ve been less than truly candid with the court, it’s not me you’re going to have to answer to.”
Forsberg’s face crumpled in tears as Waldrip sentenced him to 49 years in prison — almost twice the minimum of the agreed-to range, but less than half of what he could have gotten — to be served concurrent with any other sentences he is finishing out.
“Mr. Forsberg, my prayers will be with you, sir,” Waldrip said.