Leader Blues

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

TOP STORY>>Prosecution rests case in court martial

Leader staff writer

The prosecution rested its case Tuesday in the court martial of Staff Sgt. Jerome A. Jones Jr., an airman currently stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base.

Jones is being tried on charges associated with the death of Army Sgt. Juwan L. Johnson following a gang-type hazing in 2005. At the time, both were stationed in Kaiserslautern, Germany.

Jones is being accused of aggravated assault, culpable negligence resulting in death, conspiracy to commit assault, conspiracy to obstruct justice, participation in a gang that advocates use of force or violence, witness influencing, participation in violent initiation rituals, use of marijuana, recruitment and fund-raising for a gang that advocates use of force or violence, and aiding and abetting to protect suspects in Johnson’s death. He faces penalties ranging from demotion to E-1, loss of pay, a bad conduct discharge and one to 59 years in prison.

The trial got under way on Friday after a lengthy pretrial phase marked by numerous motions from Jones’ defense team, challenging witnesses and evidence brought by the prosecution. On Saturday and Tuesday the attorneys were on their feet at every turn to impede one another.

Lt. Col. Nancy Paul of the Judge advocate General's office at one point in frustration told defense counsel Capt. Jeremy Emmert, “These calls for a mistrial are getting out of hand!”

During two hours on the stand yesterday morning, witness for the prosecution Thermitros Saroglou described his own violent initiation into a group known as the Gangster Disciples as well as BOS, for Brothers in the Struggle. The Gangster Disciples at one time was a powerful gang whose reach extended across the United States and into many foreign countries. He identified Jones as second in command in the group, which he called “a wannabe gang click.”

Saroglou’s eyewitness testimony clearly marked Jones as a participant in Johnson’s initiation at a park pavilion the night of July 4, 2005. Saraglou that night was not physically well so watched standing on a bench in the pavilion, which was illuminated by car headlights and flashlights.

By his account, that hazing was more brutal than his own or others he’d had a part in. Instead of the usual six men, many more had gathered to administer punches to Jones’ head, chest, and kidneys. Repeatedly Jones fell under the blows, but the others helped him up.

When asked if he wanted to continue, he answered, “F*** yeah!!” Then he fell, and no one helped him up, so the group began kicking him. A timekeeper – at each initiation a member keeps the beatings to six minutes – called to the men to stop, but it took several shouts to subdue the violence.

Johnson weakly got to his feet to receive hugs and cheers of congratulation. He declined the invitation to go out and celebrate at a club and was driven back to his barracks. He was found dead the next morning.

Jones’ attorneys sought to stop an expert in gang identification from taking the stand. The Killeen, Tex., police office, John Bowman, said he has been involved in “hundreds” of investigations involving the Gangster Disciples. He told the five-man jury that the activities of the group in which Jones, Johnson, and Saroglou took part – a secret handshake and stance, symbolic icons, numbers and letters, and identifying colors and clothing – were consistent with that of the group by the same name active in U.S. cities.

Bowman’s testimony largely strengthened the prosecution’s case. However, the defense was helped by his views about the intention of gang initiations: to “establish the heart of the recruit,” never injury, damage to internal organs, and death. That is a point that the defense surely will hammer on when the court martial resumes today. Testimony by defense witnesses, closing arguments, and panel deliberations may take the rest of the week.

Saroglou may still be brought to trial, as have several other airmen who had a part in the death of Johnson. The gang’s ringleader, Rico Williams, who has left the military at the time, remains at large.