The widows of two Army officers slain in Iraq three years ago said they had refused to consider a plea deal for the soldier accused of killing their husbands because they wanted the truth to come out.
That man, Staff Sgt. Alberto Martinez, 41, of Troy, N.Y., was acquitted Thursday by a 14-member military jury on two charges of premeditated murder in the deaths of Capt. Phillip Esposito of Suffern, and 1st. Lt. Louis Allen of Milford, Pa. Prosecutors had alleged Martinez planted a claymore mine in Esposito’s window at a military post in Iraq, and set off other explosions on June 7, 2005, that killed the two men.
“We got a call from Iraq to gauge our feelings about a guilty plea, and we said no, we needed the truth,” said Barbara Allen, Allen’s widow. “At that point, we had faith in the judicial system.”
Siobhan Esposito, Phillip Esposito’s widow, said the call came before a military pretrial hearing that was held in Kuwait in late 2005.
“We said absolutely not,” said Esposito.
The Army did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Allen said she rejected the possibility of a plea deal because she wanted Martinez’s full involvement to come to light and because it would have taken the death penalty off the table.
Martinez eventually pleaded not guilty to the charges a few weeks before the start of the trial in late October.
“This is a sad day for the military justice system and the armed forces of the United States of America and for the children who will never see their fathers again,” Esposito said.
Phillip Esposito left behind one daughter and Allen four sons.
“The panel said if you don’t like your commander it’s OK to frag him,” she said.
Fragging is military slang for the intentional killing of an officer, especially by hand grenade. Martinez was the first U.S. soldier to be tried for fragging since the beginning of the war in Iraq.
The 14-member jury, split equally among men and women, consisted of eight officers and six enlisted service members. Two of the jurors were a married couple who acknowledged during the selection process that they were against the death penalty, according to victims’ family.
Allen said she was devastated and intended to explore other options to get recourse.
“They’ve declared open season on the officers,” said Allen. “I would like the government to explain to me that if Staff Sgt.
Alberto Martinez did not slaughter my husband, who did?”
The verdict shocked many in the Army who had been following the six-week trial through media reports.
“Armywide, the reaction has been of shock and some disbelief that this has actually happened,” said Greg Rinckey, a former Judge Advocate General’s Corps attorney now in private practice in Albany. “Just about everybody believes that he did it and he got out.”
Michael Diederich, another former JAG attorney who now practices in Stony Point, said he was surprised by the verdict. But, like many familiar with the case, he said the Criminal Investigation Division’s agents did a poor job of investigating the case, allowing the defense to create reasonable doubt in the minds of jury members who voted to acquit Martinez.
With Thursday’s acquittal, Rinckey said, Martinez was a free man, though the Army could bring some misconduct charges against him. He could return to his unit, the 42nd Infantry Division based in Troy. He could also ask for a discharge.
The families of the victims had limited options, Rinckey said. They could file a civil suit against Martinez, but because the crime occurred overseas, no state would have jurisdiction. The Army cannot be sued for negligence.
The verdict would likely lower the morale of the Army, with soldiers already struggling with multiple tours of duty, he said.
But in the end, Rinckey said, the verdict wouldn’t have much of an impact.
“The Army is going to shrug it off and soldier on, and say justice is done,” he said.