ARMY SAID NO TO GUILTY PLEA

Instead, GI accused of two "fragging" deaths went free after trial

ROBERT GAVIN STAFF WRITER
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Sunday, February 22, 2009

Barbara Allen and Siobhan Esposito spent three months living outside an Army base in North Carolina last fall only to watch the man charged with killing their husbands walk away free.


On Saturday, they learned something new: That man, Staff Sgt. Alberto Martinez of Rensselaer County, apparently was willing to plead guilty to murder two-and-a-half years before the trial and serve a life sentence -- and the Army told him no.


The widows of Capt. Phillip Esposito, 30, of Suffern, and 1st Lt. Louis Allen, 34, of Milford, Pa., now say they were never even told about the April 3, 2006, plea offer, which is said to have originated with Martinez.


Infuriated by the revelation, first reported Saturday by the New York Times, they say they want answers.


"Our families were entitled to know about this plea," Barbara Allen, a single mother of four boys, told the Times Union in an e-mail on Saturday. "The government had a duty to pursue a conviction. To have a conviction offered up on the proverbial silver platter, only to be thrown away, compounds the tragedy our families have endured. We were told to trust the government."


Allen said the military judicial system "set an extremely dangerous precedent for soldiers."


Both widows slammed Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who rejected Martinez's offer.


Siobhan Esposito, who has a young daughter, was equally mystified.


"Of course the Army's decision to withhold information about Martinez's admission of guilt and plea offer is appalling," she told the Times Union in an e-mail. "The government took a gamble with our lives and lost. Those responsible for this obscene decision should be identified and punished. If I were Lt. Gen. Vines, I would be ashamed to show my face in front of anyone wearing the uniform."


According to the New York Times, the guilty plea offer was signed by Maj. Marc Cipriano and Maj. E. John Gregory, the lawyers for the Martinez. The article noted Army regulations permit them to sign such a plea offer only if they believe the client committed the crime.


Reached Saturday, Tom McCollum, a spokesman for the Army at Fort Bragg, said the trial was no longer a base matter. He noted Vines is retired.


"The case was only held here," he said. "Now that it's over with, we're done."


He referred the matter to the Army's public affairs office. A spokesman from that office could not immediately be reached.


Martinez also could not be immediately reached.


After the trial, he told the Times Union in an e-mail: "I am very, very, very innocent on (these) alleged charges," adding with an underline, "and that is fact."


When asked to identify what he believed caused the incident, Martinez stated, "I don't know. Nobody knows what happened on that night."


On June 7, 2005, Esposito, Allen and Martinez were all assigned to an Army base outside Tikrit, Iraq. Their building, perched upon a man-made lake, was a former Saddam Hussein building known as the Water Palace.


Martinez, a Puerto Rico native and Lansingburgh High School graduate, was working as a supply sergeant. There was friction between the sergeant and Esposito. who was not pleased with Martinez's performance, evidence in the trial showed.


Military prosecutors said Martinez not only promised to "burn" and "frag" Esposito, but appeared suddenly content after the killings.


Meanwhile, Allen, an Orange County native who knew Esposito in New York, was only in Iraq some four days at the time.


Esposito and Allen were playing the board game Risk in the captain's room on June 7 when a Claymore mine - an explosive containing 700 steel ball bearings - exploded outside the window. They died early the next day.


Several days later, Martinez was charged with the slayings, setting the stage for a three-and-a-half-year legal battle. It ultimately ended Dec. 4, when a 14-member military jury acquitted Martinez on all charges following a trial at the sprawling Fort Bragg Army base.


"You slaughtered our husbands -- and that's it?" Barbara Allen shouted after the verdict was read. "You piece of (expletive). You murdered my husband!"


The trial was held at Fort Bragg because Vines, then-commander of coalition forces and the XVIII Airborne Corps in Iraq, was headquartered there. It was not a popular setting, as families on both sides of the case were based in New York.


On Saturday, the New York Times reported it was Vines who rejected Martinez's willingness to plead guilty to murder.


Documents obtained by the newspaper revealed that more than two years before the trial in Fort Bragg, Martinez signed his name, agreeing to get a life sentence, albeit one that included the possibility of parole.


It would have been an avenue to avoid lethal injection, a possibility if convicted.


"This offer to plea originated with me," Martinez said in the plea offer, according to the report, adding, "No person has made any attempt to force or coerce me into making this offer."


Martinez would have needed to tell a military judge "essential facts and circumstances of the offenses to which I am pleading guilty." the Times reported. It stated that the offer could be rescinded by him at any time.


The Times reported that Vines "swiftly rejected" it.


The newspaper quoted Maj. John Benson, a prosecutor during the trial, noting concern Martinez might have been eligible for parole after 10 years.


"The horrible nature of the crime created a lot of conflict about whether to take the plea," he said in an interview. But given the outcome at trial, Benson said, "I wish that the guilty plea had been accepted," adding later, "I don't think there can be any doubt whatsoever as to his guilt."


Robert Gavin can be reached at 518 434-2403 or rgavin@timesunion.com