Verdict in Troy-area soldier's murder case sparks outburst by victims' families in court

Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Friday, December 5, 2008

FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- In a jolting end to a three-and-a-half year legal case, Staff Sgt. Alberto Martinez of Rensselaer County was acquitted Thursday of murdering two superior officers on an Army base in Iraq.

Martinez, 41, of Schaghticoke, faced a possible death sentence if convicted of setting off a June 7, 2005 explosion that killed Capt. Phillip Esposito. 30, of Suffern and 1st Lt. Louis Allen, 34, of Milford, Pa., in Tikrit.

Instead, he walked out of the courtroom with a verdict that devastated the victims' family members as they sat stunned in the courtroom at the Fort Bragg military base in North Carolina.

"You slaughtered our husbands -- and that's it?" an incredulous Barbara Allen, the lieutenant's widow, hollered at Martinez, once the verdict was announced . "You piece of (expletive). You murdered my husband!"

She and Siobhan Esposito, widow of the slain captain, put their heads in their hands and sobbed uncontrollably, as other family members consoled them.

Martinez, whose family was present, showed little emotion as he was escorted out of the courtroom, a free man.

The Army would not say where he would spend the night, though he remains an active member of the Army assigned to Fort Bragg. Officials would not discuss security relating to Martinez.

"We are pleased that the justice system worked and we are grateful for the representation and support of the defense team," said a statement from the Martinez family. "Our sympathies go out to the families of the victims. This has been a very difficult process for everyone involved. We are happy to be together as a family."

The emotion-packed reactions followed two months of testimony and two days of deliberations.

At about 5 p.m. Thursday, the jury asked the judge, Col. Stephen Henley, how many votes they would need to convict or acquit. The question prompted both widows to sink their heads into their hands, fearing an acquittal.

The verdict was read at about 6:25 p.m.

The courtroom was on high security alert, with every person entering the courtroom screened for possible weapons. Dogs were brought into the hallways outside.

Martinez, a married father of a son and daughter, graduated from Lansingburgh High School in 1983. He later joined the New York National Guard, though he no longer belongs. He had been in custody since June 2005.

"We wouldn't have brought the charges," said Kerry Erisman, the chief prosecutor at the 18th Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, "if we weren't convinced that Staff Sgt. Martinez was guilty."

Martinez was acquitted in a case in which prosecutors called him the "only person" who could have committed the crime.

On June 7, 2005, Esposito and Allen were playing a board game in Esposito's room when a Claymore mine filled with 700 steel ball-bearings exploded outside the captain's window. They died the next day.

Several days later, prosecutors charged Martinez with one of the Iraq war's first cases of "fragging" -- the killing of a fellow soldier -- since the war began in 2003. An earlier case took place in Kuwait.

Martinez gave military investigators a potentially incriminating statement in June 2005, but it was blocked from the trial when an appeals court found police wrongfully detained the sergeant, placing him in a detention facility typically used for Iraqi insurgents.

Witnesses testified that Martinez, a supply sergeant, had experienced continued problems in that role, resulting in friction between he and Esposito, a by-the-book West Point graduate with a wife and daughter.

By May 2005, Esposito had banned Martinez from entering his own supply room at their Army base, a trapezoid-shaped building called the "Water Palace" that had once belonged to Saddam Hussein.

Allen, a married father of four and science teacher, had arrived in Iraq only days earlier. Martinez allegedly considered him one of the captain's "boys" and prosecutors said he was to take over supply issues at the base.

The prosecution said Martinez killed the soldiers after his anger at Esposito slowly rose from making threats to placing the mine. He had promised to "burn" and "frag" the captain, prosecutors said.

Staff Sgt. Amy Harlan of Ohio, who also worked in supplies at the base, testified she provided Martinez with the mines in May, unaware of what would transpire. The jury Thursday asked to listen to her testimony, in which she said the soldier's ire toward Esposito was increasing.

He had told her the ammunition would be put to "good use," she testified.

But she acknowledged that when she spoke to military investigators later that month, she never mentioned anything about the mines.

In a statement, Maj. Gen. Joseph Taluto, former commander of the 42nd Infantry Division, to which the men belonged, said it continues to extend sympathy and support to the families of Esposito and Allen, adding, "They will never be forgotten."

Robert Gavin can be reached at 434-2403 or rgavin@timesunion.com.