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Fort Bragg trial starts in ’fragging’ case

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Posted: October 22, 2008 1:13 p.m.
Updated: November 6, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Fort Bragg trial starts in ’fragging’ case

This undated photo provided by CBS6/WRGB Albany shows U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Alberto B. Martinez, of Troy, N.Y. The court-martial of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Alberto B. Martinez, the first soldier accused of killing a direct superior in Iraq _ known as "fragging" during the Vietnam War _ opened Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008, three years after a suspicious blast tore through the living quarters of two National Guard officers.


    FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Military prosecutors argued Wednesday that the first soldier accusing of killing a direct superior in Iraq — known as ‘‘fragging’’ during the Vietnam war — told other soldiers he wanted to kill and burn his National Guard officer.
    Prosecutor Capt. Evan Seamone told jurors that Staff Sgt. Alberto B. Martinez was frustrated with Capt. Phillip Esposito’s strict oversight of the supply room where Martinez worked. Martinez, a New York National Guard soldier, told another soldier he planned to ‘‘frag that (expletive)’’ before a suspicious blast tore through Esposito’s living quarters, the prosecutor said during opening arguments of Martinez’s death penalty trial.
    Esposito and 1st Lt. Louis Allen, also a National Guard officer, were killed when a mine detonated outside their room in 2005.
    ‘‘There was no soldier who voiced as much hatred for Capt. Esposito as Sgt. Martinez,’’ Seamone said.
    Martinez, 41, of Troy, N.Y., is accused of planting the anti-personnel mine that detonated on June 7, 2005, in a window just outside the officers’ room at Saddam Hussein’s Water Palace in Tikrit. The officers died the next day. At an earlier hearing in Kuwait, a witness testified Martinez had said twice that he disliked Esposito and was going to ‘‘frag’’ him.
    Defense attorney Maj. John Gregory told jurors that Army investigators assumed Martinez was guilty after learning of his feud with Esposito, a by-the-book West Point graduate who took over a relaxed National Guard unit.
    Because of their prejudice, investigators were ‘‘likely to miss important evidence that will be lost forever.’’
    Gregory also said investigators thought initially that the blast was caused by a mortar attack, but suddenly changed their minds after one soldier told them that Martinez and Esposito didn’t get along.
    ‘‘The investigation is so flawed and so unreliable that it cannot be the basis for a conviction of Staff Sgt. Martinez,’’ Gregory said. ‘‘Staff Sgt. Martinez is not guilty of these crimes.’’
    The case is expected to run through the end of the year, and the judge has pledged to hear testimony on holidays and weekends. However, he said the proceedings would end early Wednesday because one of the 14 jurors had a personal matter.
    Numerous delays in the case have frustrated the widows of Esposito and Allen.
    ‘‘I never imagined that it would take more than three years to bring him to trial,’’ said Esposito’s wife, Siobhan, who along with Allen’s wife, has attended every hearing.
    ‘‘My life irrevocably changed,’’ she said. ‘‘In an instant, I became a single parent and had to balance raising our daughter on my own while seeking justice for Phillip’s murder.’’
    The Army reported hundreds of ‘‘fragging’’ incidents between 1969 and 1971, but only four soldiers have been court-martialed or charged with killing a fellow soldier since the Iraq war began in 2003.
    ‘‘From a military perspective this is a unique case, a soldier attempting to ’frag’ his own officers,’’ said Greg Rinckey, an Albany, N.Y., attorney who served as an Army lawyer for six years. ‘‘It’s a troubling case from a military perspective because it goes to the concept of good order and discipline. This is why the military is seeking the death penalty.’’
    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.
    Bringing Martinez to trial has been an arduous process, as defense attorneys spent countless hours trying to eliminate a possible death sentence. They won postponements, but failed to escape a capital trial.
    The court-martial is taking place at the sprawling North Carolina base because it’s where the commander in charge of ground forces in Iraq at the time of the blast was based. The Army has set up a closed-circuit television feed at West Point in New York, but Allen and Esposito’s widows are spending thousands to rent apartments and attend the trial in person.
    Both women are expected to be among the first witnesses called by prosecutors.
    ‘‘I can be in the courtroom and represent Lou,’’ Barbara Allen said. ‘‘I can work to use this case to teach others what went wrong, and maybe prevent it from happening again. For me that is like finishing Lou’s mission for him.’’

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