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Chambersburg grad waits for word on charges

August 14, 2006|by JENNIFER FITCH

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - Hundreds of soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division returned home this weekend from a yearlong deployment in Iraq, while five of their comrades, including a 2002 Chambersburg (Pa.) Area Senior High School graduate, awaited word whether they would be court-martialed in the March murders of an Iraqi family.

A three-day Article 32 hearing held last week in Baghdad looks to the presiding investigating officer's report to determine if the military has a sufficient case to proceed with its charges against Pfc. Jesse V. Spielman, 22, and four others from the squad. The group, along with alleged leader, former Pfc. Steven D. Green, is accused of drinking alcohol, abandoning its traffic checkpoint, raping 14-year-old Abeer Qassim al-Janabi and killing the girl and her family.

Premeditated murder carries the death penalty under U.S. military law.

Spielman was joined on the tail end of the hearing by Texas lawyer Dan Christensen, part of the civilian defense team that argued its client did not rape or shoot the family, but rather became involved in the incident through higher-ranking members of his squad.

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"The government fully intends to do whatever it takes to make everyone at the scene scapegoats," said lawyer Thomas Trgovac of Chambersburg.

Others connected to the crime are Spc. James P. Barker, Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, Pfc. Bryan L. Howard and Green, who has a case pending in federal court. Sgt. Anthony W. Yribe is not alleged to have been a participant, but is charged with failing to report the assault.

Neither Trgovac nor Christensen thinks the case against Spielman will be dismissed.

"I fear that the political powers in this case may just be too strong. It has already affected the way the investigators conducted their investigation, the way the prosecution has pursued it and the way the (investigating officer) handled the hearing," Christensen wrote in an e-mail while traveling back to the United States.

The case and others similar in nature have increased demands for changes in an agreement that exempts U.S. soldiers from prosecution in Iraqi courts. And Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has demanded an independent investigation into the case.

"Our experience with Article 32 hearings in high-profile cases is that the charges are rarely dismissed and the case is almost always ordered to proceed to trial by court-martial. ... The Article 32 hearing is the first of many small battles that I and my colleagues ... will have to fight for Jesse," Trgovac wrote in an e-mail.

In testimony Aug. 7, one investigator said Spielman passed a lie-detector test on assertions that he did not shoot or have sex with anyone in the house.

The defense on the hearing's final day argued that combat stress led soldiers to drink and abuse painkillers, while prosecutors said stress doesn't excuse rape and murder.

The whiskey consumed by the group, a violation of U.S. regulations in Iraq, was obtained by a local citizen, Christensen said.

"Duty at a (traffic checkpoint) is unusually hostile. These (checkpoints) are out on the front lines and are attacked frequently," Christensen said.

He added that duties also include walking Iraqi roads, looking for explosive devices.

"Normally, one finds them only when they go off because they are hidden so well. The stories were amazing about the risk these soldiers face daily when they are detailed to go to the (checkpoint)," Christensen said.

He said the soldiers had been at the checkpoint for approximately 22 days, although generally troops would be assigned to a checkpoint for five to seven days "because of the constant and extreme stress."

More than 150 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division have died in the Iraq war since 2003.

"The other day at the hearing, we were attempting to put together a list of witnesses who could testify to (Spielman's) duty performance and truthfulness," Christensen said. "When I asked, his response to me was (that) 'most of these folks are dead.'"

Trgovac said Spielman's mother, Nancy Hess, is remaining strong for her son and Spielman asks that the public keep an open mind about him.

"And when this is all through, we are confident that Jesse will return to Chambersburg with his head held high, for he did not dishonor his country, he did not dishonor his hometown and he did not dishonor himself," Trgovac said.

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