Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Third hazing trial begins at Kaneohe Marine Corps Base Hawaii
by Larry Geller
The court martial of Lance Cpl. Carlos Orozco III began today at Kaneohe Marine Corps Base with jury selection and the testimony of the first witness.
This is the third and perhaps longest trial relating to the alleged hazing and subsequent suicide of Lance Cpl Harry Lew in Afghanistan in April last year. The charges against Orozco do not include the death of Lew.
Orozco stands accused of assault, humiliating Lew, cruelty and maltreatment.
The first witness in the trial described watching through a night-vision device in near-darkness as Orozco put his foot on Lew’s back while Lew was made to do push-ups. The witness stated that he did not see any sandbags nor see Orozco pour any sand on Lew’s face, accusations which formed part of the previous court martial as well as this one.
The defense questioned the witness about differences between his statement made close to the time of Lew’s suicide and his testimony in court.
There were no iPhone photos or security cameras watching, so a verdict may hinge on piecing together the testimony of eye witnesses in order to recreate what happened that night in dim moonlight and under the stress of battle conditions.
The first day of trial was not without its drama, including a brief shouting match between the judge, Lt. Col Stephen F. Keane of Camp Pendelton, and the defense attorney. Judge Keane objected to suggestions about what his responsibilities were as a military judge.
Perhaps due to the small size of the courtroom or perhaps to some difference in the way military and civilian trials are conducted, the witness and the jury were repeatedly evicted from the courtroom so that the judge and attorneys could confer. At the federal courthouse in Honolulu, for example, the attorneys would simply approach the bench and talk in private while the witness and jury remained in place.
This is only the second court martial I have ever attended, and both impressed me with the precision with which they were conducted. The questioning of witnesses was efficient. The jury is composed of educated peers of the accused and was allowed to ask questions if passed in writing to the judge.
This third and last trial should be the longest and could be the most complicated for a jury to evaluate. It involves physical contact between Orozco and Lew, so that Lew, the now deceased Marine, was more present in the courtroom than in the earlier trial.
The first court martial did not take place since Lance Corporal Jacob Jacoby reached a plea agreement with prosecutors, pleaded guilty to assault, and was sentenced to 30 days confinement and reduced one pay rank.
Sgt. Benjamin Johns was found not guilty in the second trial as witness after witness failed to support the government’s charges.
The backdrop to all three trials is the suicide of Lance Cpl Lew, who fell asleep four times while on watch. Intelligence indicated that the Taliban might attack as they had several times previously. None of the three defendants is accused of responsibility for Lew’s death.
Lew was the nephew of US Rep. Judy Chu, who has called for Congressional hearings into the role of hazing in his death and who has expressed dissatisfaction with the two cases prosecuted prior to this one.