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Military to court-martial Pfc. Spielman

The death penalty is a possible sentence in Iraq rape-murder case.

The death penalty is a possible sentence in Iraq rape-murder case.

October 19, 2006|by JENNIFER FITCH

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - The United States military on Wednesday announced its intention to court-martial Pfc. Jesse V. Spielman of Chambersburg and left the death penalty as a possible sentence for the 21-year-old in the Iraq rape-murder case that captured international attention.

The Army's 101st Airborne Division commander referred the cases against two of Spielman's alleged co-conspirators without the death penalty option - a move Spielman's Texas-based civilian defense attorney said could be the result of plea bargains in the works with the pair.

Spielman, a 2002 Chambersburg Area Senior High School graduate, won't plead guilty to a crime he didn't commit, Dan Christensen of Carlson Law Firm said.

"I think capital referral is an effort by the government to put pressure on the accused to plead guilty," Christensen said, calling the move "hugely overreaching" on the military's part.

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Christensen said no one from Spielman's defense team was especially surprised by the announcement.

"Nothing has happened thus far that wasn't expected," Christensen said.

He said the government has approached the defense with a plea agreement, but he said the case will be tried. Christensen said pretrial hearings and an arraignment will precede the Fort Campbell, Ky., court-martial, which hasn't been scheduled.

Sgt. Paul E. Cortez joins Spielman as the other soldier from the accused group to be referred for court-martial with the death penalty option. Both are charged with premeditated murder, rape, conspiracy to commit premeditated murder and rape, conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice, violating a lawful general order, arson and housebreaking.

Military investigators allege that Cortez, Spielman, Spc. James P. Barker, Pfc. Bryan L. Howard and former soldier Steven Green abandoned their traffic checkpoint south of Baghdad, raped 14-year-old Abeer Qassim al-Janabi, fatally shot her, set her body on fire and killed her parents and sister.

Green, who has pleaded not guilty to one count of rape and four counts of murder, will be tried in federal court in Kentucky.

Maj. Gen. Thomas R. Turner has not yet ruled on whether to order a court-martial for Sgt. Anthony W. Yribe, who is accused of failing to report the attack on the girl but is not alleged to have been a direct participant. Yribe has requested a discharge from the Army in lieu of a court-martial.

Four other soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division were referred to trial by general court-martial Wednesday in connection with the May 9 murders of three Iraqi men.

The last military death sentence was issued in 2005, but no one has been executed since 1961 when John A. Bennett was put to death on rape and attempted murder convictions, Army spokesman Sheldon Smith said.

The president must approve executions, Smith said.

Christensen, who maintains his client merely accompanied his peers, said he is "not aware of any case that resulted in the death penalty for an accessory."

Spielman remains in pretrial confinement at an undisclosed location in the United States. That confinement is likely to be argued in the pretrial hearings, said Christensen, who hasn't spoken to his client since the announcement.

Other issues in those hearings could include requests for experts and discovery motions, he said.

While Christensen wouldn't reveal the focus of planned arguments for the trial, they "won't be inconsistent with anything we've said in the past," he said.

"It's clear the government is using these guys to set an example (and) send a message," Christensen said.

- The Associated Press contributed to this story

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