Leader Blues

Monday, January 26, 2009

TOP STORY>>Sergeant guilty in trial on air base

By NANCY DOCKTER
Leader staff writer

An Air Force staff sergeant stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base was convicted of aggravated assault Friday for his part in a 2005 brutal gang initiation of an Army sergeant, who died from his injuries. At the time, both men were stationed in Germany.

Staff Sgt. Jerome Jones, 25, will serve two years in prison, have his rank reduced to airman basic and receive a dishonorable discharge for his part in the death of Army Sgt. Juwan Johnson and convictions on a host of other charges.

Jones’ court martial began last week at the air base. The five-man panel of jurors went into deliberations Thursday afternoon and returned its verdict and sentence by early Friday evening.

The maximum time Jones could have been sentenced if convicted on all charges was 59 years. But before his sentencing, the maximum was capped at 17.5 years.

Jones was also found guilty of conspiracy to wrongfully impede an investigation, conspiracy to participate in an organization that advocates use of force or violence, influencing actions of a potential witness, conduct that is detrimental to the good order and discipline of the armed forces and its public esteem, wrongful use of a controlled substance (marijuana), and failure to obey a regulation by participation in an organization that advocates use of force or violence.

Jones was found not guilty of being an accessory after the fact, involving alleged fundraising to enable the gang’s alleged ringleader, former Airman Rico Williams, elude authorities. Williams remains at large.

By consenting to the ritual beating, Johnson earned membership in a group that went by the names BOSS (Brothers of the Strong Struggle) and Gangster Disciples, which attracted young black males and was active in and around Kaiserslautern, Germany, for several years before the fatal incident.

Johnson was found dead in his Army barracks on July 4, 2005, the morning after the initiation. Multiple blunt-force trauma was ruled as the cause of his death, according to an autopsy by the Army.

The three days of testimony included that of five current or former U.S. servicemen, as well as that of expert witnesses in forensic medicine and gang behavior.

To get a guilty verdict on as many of the charges as possible, the prosecution needed to convince jurors of two things: that the group to which Jones belonged was a true gang, and that he was fully responsible for Johnson’s death, regardless of his intent, Johnson’s own willing participation in the beating, or others’ culpability.

Throughout the trial, Jones’ defense team sought to discredit the idea that the group was actually a gang, but more accurately a group of “gang wannabes” who were acting out delusions of the ringleader Williams.

In closing arguments, Maj. Veronique Anderson, a defense attorney, called the prosecution’s case nothing more than “guilt by association, labels and stereotypes,” dependent upon circumstantial evidence and unreliable testimony from others implicated in the case.

Jones did not take the stand, but according to testimony from gang members, Johnson’s initiatition was more brutal than others by the group. Nine men – airmen and soldiers – took part, rather than the usual six. Several times, the victim was asked if he wanted the battering to stop; each time, he urged the group to continue. Several times, he fell and was helped up. The last time, he was left on the ground and kicked, until repeated shouts from a timekeeper stopped the assault after six minutes. Dazed and unable to walk on his own, Johnson was driven back to his quarters, rather than going out to celebrate, which was customary after induction of a new member. Some witnesses said Jones participated in the initiation, others said he was not present.

Long before being implicated in the crime, Jones was transferred from Ramstein Air Base in Germany to Little Rock, where he has worked as an aircraft maintainer with the 314th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron until his court martial.

Some testimony from former members portrayed the group as belligerent, frequently engaging in gang fights at a local club, Black Sounds, which was claimed as its turf. Williams was depicted as a charismatic figure who commanded respect through use of violence and was emulated by Jones and others who rose to prominence in the organization.

Testimony from others familiar with the group described it as a surrogate family or fraternity that hosted barbeques, parties, talent shows, even baby showers, and only over time became more gang-like, as Williams aligned the group’s identity with the Gangster Disciples, a once-powerful stateside gang and rival of the Crips and Bloods.

At his direction, members researched the “G.D.” on the Internet and adopted its trappings – gang colors, body language, sayings, and icons, including the six-pointed Star of David and credo, “living under the six – love, life, loyalty, understanding, wisdom, and knowledge.”

CHARADE OR REAL?

The prosecution and defense brought their own, very different expert witnesses to testify about the character of the group to which Jones belonged. Prosecution witness John Bowman, a Killeen, Texas, police detective with a long career in gang investigations, including those in the military, testified that the Kaiserslautern group was indeed a gang, whose behavior and symbols were “largely consistent” with the Chicago-based Gangster Disciples.

In contrast, the defense’s expert witness on gangs was Lewis Yablonksy, a University of California professor with a 50-year career in gang research and an author of several books on the topic. He categorically rejected the idea that servicemen could ever belong to a true gang, because their military livelihoods precluded them from full-time criminal activity, which according to his own academic framework, is the defining characteristic of a gang.

He admitted to never having studied the Gangster Disciples or military gangs. In his opinion, the Kaiserlautern group had been manipulated into living out Williams’ fantasies and merely engaged in “a psychodrama” in off-time from military jobs.

SHIFTING THE BLAME

The defense tried several strategies to shift responsibility away from the accused by pointing the finger of blame elsewhere – at the victim himself, at others who had been with Johnson during and after the beating, and at the U.S. Army.

Johnson’s own willingness to be beaten did not in anyway lessen the culpability of Jones or others who may have contributed to Johnson’s death, ruled the military judge, Lt. Col. Nancy Paul. To an appeal by another defense attorney, Maj. Conrad Huygen, that jurors should be instructed to consider the victim’s lawful consent in their deliberations, Paul refused, noting, “The initiation in of itself was unlawful.”

Eleven U.S. servicemen have been implicated in the incident – nine as participants in the beating and two as bystanders.. Two airmen and one soldier have been convicted, with prison sentences ranging from six to 12 years. One has been acquitted. Another awaits trial in February.

MEDICAL CAUSES

The defense attempted to shift blame as well to the Army for its failure to screen Johnson for an underlying medical condition that the defense’s forensic medicine expert testified contributed to his death. Harry Bonnell, former deputy medical examiner for San Diego, Calif., told jurors that organ tissue samples revealed that Johnson was a carrier of the trait for sickle cell disease, which affects individuals of African descent.

The disorder, which causes red blood cells to change from a normal doughnut to crescent shape is protective against malaria, but also impedes the flow of oxygen to body tissues. Individuals without the sickle cell disease, but who are carriers of the trait, generally live healthy lives, Bonnell said, but physical exertion and dehydration can bring on a sudden sickling of blood cells and even death. Bonnell contended that this is what happened to Johnson, although he had no history of sickle cell crisis, even as an athlete or during an Iraq tour of duty.

Maj. Huygen saw Bonnell’s testimony as reason to blame the Army for Johnson’s death.

“The United States Army is accountable for this. Sgt. Johnson was not given the tools to recognize what was going on in his body,” Huygen said.

In her closing arguments, prosecution attorney Capt. Deanna Daly told the jurors, “One thing we know for sure, the one definite conclusion from three experts – if he had not been beaten that day he would not have died. They were using violence against other members of the military, some who outranked them. I am not saying it is an intentional death, but he (Jones) is responsible.” She urged the panel, in their deliberations, to “use your common sense and way of the world.”