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Soldier acquitted by jurors in officers' deaths

A military jury has acquitted a New York Army National Guard soldier in the 2005 bombing deaths of two superiors in Iraq.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A soldier was acquitted of murder Thursday in the 2005 bombing deaths of two superiors in Iraq, triggering loud outbursts and gasps from the slain officers' families.

A military jury found National Guard Staff Sgt. Alberto Martinez not guilty of two counts of premeditated murder in the deaths of Capt. Phillip Esposito and 1st Lt. Louis Allen. Both officers were killed when an anti-personnel mine detonated in a window of their room at a U.S. military base in Iraq in June 2005.

"He slaughtered our husbands and that's it?" yelled Allen's widow, Barbara Allen, moments after the verdict was read. Someone else shouted out that Martinez was a "murdering son of a bitch" before the judge quickly ordered the courtroom cleared.

The 14-member jury spent two days deliberating following a six-week trial at Fort Bragg, during which Martinez chose not to testify. The New York National Guard soldier could have faced the death penalty if he had been convicted.

"We are pleased that the military justice system worked," the Martinez family said in a written statement released afterward by defense attorneys. "Our sympathies go out to the families of the victims."

First accused of 'fragging'
Martinez, 41, of Troy, N.Y., was the first soldier from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to have been accused of killing a direct superior, a crime known as "fragging" during the Vietnam war. All three men were members of the 42nd Infantry Division.

Esposito, 30, of Suffern, N.Y., worked as an information technology manager in Manhattan and was Martinez's company commander. Allen, 34, of Milford, Pa., was a high school science teacher and the company operations officer. The Espositos had a young daughter, and the Allens had four young sons.

Witnesses had testified that Esposito and Martinez were at odds and clashed regularly because the officer thought Martinez was lax in his operation of the unit's supply room.

Lt. Col. Kerry Erisman, the chief prosecutor at Fort Bragg, refused to say when Martinez would be released, citing security concerns. Martinez was escorted out of the courtroom soon after the verdict and wasn't available for comment.

When asked what the acquittal said about their prosecution, Erisman responded: "We wouldn't have brought charges if we weren't convinced that Staff Sgt. Martinez was guilty."

Discharged before the trial
Before the trial began, Martinez was discharged from the National Guard and assigned to Fort Bragg for the purposes of the court-martial. He is allowed to leave the military because he has completed his term of service.

Several other charges were dropped earlier this year, including counts of illegal possession of a firearm, alcohol and explosives. Martinez also had been accused of illegally giving government printers and copiers to an Iraqi, a charge also dropped.

Before reaching a verdict, military jurors spent several hours Thursday reviewing the recorded testimony of trial witnesses, including a sergeant who said she had delivered explosives to the supply room Martinez oversaw shortly before the bombing.

Prosecution witness Staff Sgt. Amy Harlan said she delivered ammunition and Claymore mines — the type of explosive that killed the officers — to Martinez's supply room about a month before the fatal bombing. Harlan said she neither received nor requested a receipt documenting who took the equipment, a usual military practice.

Sgt. 1st Class Ashvin Thimmaiah's testimony also was reviewed. He said Esposito asked him for a list of "potential candidates to take over the supply room" the day before he was killed.

Staff Sgt. David Wentzel, in testimony recorded in October, said Martinez "seemed unconcerned" moments after the fatal blast.

Wentzel said he assumed Martinez was shell-shocked because he didn't respond when he yelled for Martinez to take cover. Wentzel said he jumped up and pulled Martinez to the shelter of a building.

"I was expecting there was more to come," Wentzel testified. "He was standing in the middle of the road not trying to seek cover or anything. It was almost like he knew it was over."