Defense wraps up in fragging court-martial

By Estes Thompson - The Associated Press
Posted : Monday Nov 24, 2008 20:03:53 EST

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — The New York soldier accused of killing two superior officers in Iraq said Monday he won’t testify in his defense during his court-martial at Fort Bragg.

The defense team for Staff Sgt. Alberto Martinez wrapped up its case after the judge asked Martinez “was it your decision not to testify?” Martinez answered: “Yes sir. Not to testify.”

Martinez is the first soldier from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to be accused of killing a direct superior, a crime known as “fragging” during the Vietnam war. Witnesses have said he didn’t get along with Capt. Phillip Esposito, who was killed along with another officer when an anti-personnel mine exploded on a U.S. military base in 2005.

Prosecutors called rebuttal witnesses later Monday, including former 42nd Infantry Division cook Sgt. Sandra Pelton — whose testimony surprised defense attorneys.

Pelton said she worked in the dining hall on the base, and Martinez twice mentioned fragging when he came through her line a few days before the explosion.

Pelton said she asked Martinez how he was doing, and he replied by making a hand gesture and noise simulating an explosion. Martinez said “frag him, frag,” then said “I mean it,” Pelton testified.

“His demeanor was very serious, very focused,” she said.

On cross examination, Pelton admitted she did not tell defense lawyers last week when they interviewed her about Martinez’s outburst. She did not explain why she withheld the information, but said she recently wanted to come forward because it had been bothering her.

“This has been affecting me for a very long time because I did not report it officially,” she said.

In later testimony, retired Col. Gordon Mereness, former chief of staff for the 42nd Infantry Division, told the prosecution that Esposito was a good officer and that even though Martinez’s operation of the supply room was inadequate, Esposito felt Martinez could improve his performance. Mereness said he thought as far back as August 2004 that Martinez should be removed.

Master Sgt. Lance Willsey, the senior sergeant in Esposito’s company, was asked by the defense if he ever came back angry or cursing after meetings with Esposito.

“I would not be that unprofessional,” said Willsey, who also denied ever threatening to punch Esposito in the face or throw him in the lake.

Despite the defense’s attempt to portray Willsey as antagonistic with Esposito, Willsey said he had no reason to wish Esposito harm.

“He was my friend and he was my commander,” Willsey said.

Martinez has pleaded not guilty to premeditated murder in the deaths of Esposito, 30, of Suffern, N.Y., and 1st Lt. Louis Allen, 34, of Milford, Pa. Both men died when a Claymore mine detonated in the window of their room in Saddam Hussein’s Water Palace in Tikrit.

Grenade pins were collected as evidence several days after the explosion because there was concern someone may have altered the crime scene, Army investigator Special Agent Jeffrey Tellock testified Monday.

He said the blast site was no longer guarded when he arrived.

Tellock said he found two grenade pins and a latex glove on the ground three days after the blast. He said another agent told him to keep the glove and pins because it might show that “someone was trying to tamper with the evidence.”

Defense witness Sam Caldwell, a retired Army reservist in another unit, testified that all explosives were accounted for in his supply room, including Claymore mines. The testimony appeared to counter a prosecution witness who said she wasn’t given receipts when she delivered Claymore mines from the unit’s supply room to a supply room Martinez oversaw.

Earlier witnesses have said Esposito and Martinez’s relationship was tense because Esposito wanted all equipment accounted for in the supply room, while Martinez didn’t believe the paperwork was necessary.

Martinez, a New York Army National Guard soldier from Troy, N.Y., could face the death penalty if convicted.

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