Marine's Shooting Case Finally Stumbles to Jury
MANHATTAN (CN) - A "livid" federal judge blasted federal prosecutors about their handling of the six-year old case of a Marine's accidental shooting of his comrade in Iraq, before finally sending it to a jury on Tuesday.
"The only mystery in this case is why the case is still here," U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon announced in exasperation after the closing arguments concluded.
In January 2008, then-Marine corporal Wilfredo Santiago accidently shot his comrade Michael Carpeso while the two men were in their housing unit at Camp Echo in Iraq.
At first, Santiago originally told military investigators that he heard the gunfire, before he told them some days later that he also fired his M9 pistol.
Neither of the parties disputes that Santiago shot Carpeso, who lost an eye in the incident.
Santiago never faced court-martial and ended his service with an honorable discharge.
By indicting him last year, federal prosecutors made an "unprecedented" decision to criminally charge a former armed service member for wartime conduct, according to a written opinion from August.
Judge McMahon has long made her views known that military investigators bungled aspects of the case against Santiago, and she threw out a negligent assault charge against the former Marine a few months later because of a violation of his due-process rights.
The one-day trial has focused on the narrower question of whether Santiago lied to military investigators during the criminal investigation. His lawyers contend that Santiago told the partial truth, but chose not to incriminate himself, during informal questioning.
"As I was moving to my rack [i.e. bed], I heard a gunshot," Santiago wrote in his original statement. (Brackets added)
During closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Singer told jurors that Santiago's evasion was a "lie."
"He didn't choose to show integrity and honor, as a Marine should," Singer said.
Defense attorney Phillip Weinstein emphasized that Santiago served five years in the military and had spent another five in civilian life until federal agents knocked on his door, illustrating the point by tapping on his wooden podium three times.
Weinstein insisted that the prosecution found nothing false in his old statements.
"An omission, or failing to mention a fact, does not make it untrue," he said.
During rebuttal arguments, prosecutor Damian Williams tallied Santiago's original statement at 299 words.
"All he had to say is three words: 'I shot him,'" Williams said.
That remark prompted the defense's second motion for a mistrial that day, on the grounds that it implied that Santiago had an obligation to inculpate himself.
Scolding the prosecutor about the comment, McMahon said, "I have to tell you, I am livid."
Earlier that day, McMahon faulted the same prosecutor for suggesting that Santiago put Carpeso's disability benefits at risk because military investigator initially believed that Carpeso may have shot himself.
Defense attorney Annalisa Miron called the allegation "inflammatory" after proof of it did not come in during the government's case, in light of the ongoing scandal surrounding the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The VA's chief Eric Shinseki resigned days before the trial opened amid an investigation charging departmental mismanagement and falsification of records.
Comparing the coincidence to a famous scene in "Casablanca," McMahon quoted Humphrey Bogart, "Of all the gin joints in all the world, she walked into mine."Ultimately rejecting both applications for a mistrial, McMahon crafted curative instructions for the jurors, who will resume deliberations on Wednesday.