An airman at Little Rock Air Force Base is accused of involuntary manslaughter as one of at least eight suspects who investigators say fatally beat an Army sergeant in 2005 during a gang initiation at a U.S. military base in Germany.
Staff Sgt. Jerome A. Jones, 25, faces an array of charges in a court-martial at the base stemming from the death of Army Sgt. Juwan Johnson at Kaiserslaughtern, Germany. Jones, the other suspects and Johnson were stationed there at the time.
Jones' court-martial is being held in Arkansas because it is his current duty station. The Air Force in September 2005 transferred him to the base in Jacksonville, where he has continued to work as a C-130 cargo plane crew chief with the 314th Airlift Wing.
In October, Jones was charged with six violations of military law as specified in the Uniform Code of Military Justice; some include multiple counts. In addition to involuntary manslaughter, the charges include three counts of conspiracy, two counts of obstruction of justice, one count of wrongful use or possession of a controlled substance, one count of failure to obey an order or regulation and one count of being an accessory after the fact.
Late Thursday, Jones stood before the court and pleaded innocent after two days of arguments in which his defense team sought to have the charges reduced or the case dismissed.
The day ended with opening statements. Testimony continued Saturday and is scheduled to resume Monday.
The case centers on two main questions: whether Jones participated in the beating in an initiation ritual that prosecutors believe led to Johnson's death; and whether the initiation was into a violent gang or a nebulous group.
Capt. Peter Kezar, one of three prosecutors in the case, opened his arguments Thursday by describing a gang initiation ritual used by the street gang known as the Gangster Disciples - called a "jump-in," in which each new member must endure a six-minute beating. He described it as escalating that night from "reckless" to a "free-for-all."
Reports say the beating happened in a park pavilion in the woods outside Kaiserslaughtern. Johnson was alive when the group helped him back to his Army barracks at Kleber Kaserne, where he was stationed with the Army's 66th Transportation Company, reports say. He was found dead in his room the next morning, July 4, 2005, slumped on the floor against a wall between his bed and desk.
"Each eyewitness will place the accused at that pavilion," Kezar said, laying the groundwork against the defense team's main argument that the witnesses are unreliable. "The government will not claim these witnesses are perfect people. ... They all have their own reasons for testifying."
Three other suspects in the case have been given prison sentences. Another suspect is headed to a court-martial in coming months. At least two suspects agreed to reduced punishment in a plea bargain in return for testifying against the others - including Jones.
Capt. Jeremy Emmert, one of Jones' three defense attorneys, countered Kezar's statement in his own opening before a lengthy list of witnesses began testifying Friday.
"[Staff] Sgt. Jones didn't kill Sgt. Johnson," he said. "Sgt. Jones doesn't belong to a violent gang." He said the government's case against Jones relies on "self-preservation and stereotypes."
What prosecutors call a gang was a "benign" group, Emmert said, "for brotherhood."
"Each [government witness] has their own motive to lie about why they say Sgt. Jones was there," he said, adding than he believed two witnesses were in collusion.
"And mere membership is not evidence beyond reasonable doubt," he told the panel. "There is evidence that Sgt. Jones wasn't there."
The detail of charges against Jones claim that he was a member of the Gangster Disciples and was one of several military members who beat Johnson during his initiation that night. The charges further claim that he conspired with fellow gang members in the assault, that he impeded the investigation, and helped organize, raise money and recruit for the gang.
Belonging to a gang "that advocates the use of force or violence" is a violation of military law.
Court documents claim that Jones tried to persuade a witness not to testify, reporting that Jones said, "Make sure that you put the word out that everybody better shut up, don't be talking and anybody that talks can cancel Christmas."
Additional charges claim that he used marijuana and hindered the apprehension of a suspect by raising funds to help him hide. That suspect, believed to be a leader in the Kaiserslaughtern gang, has not been found.
The defense team made 13 pretrial motions in the week leading up to the court-martial, including requesting a mistrial based on claims that military investigators intimidated witnesses and asking for a reduction in charges, arguing that many are repetitive.
Judge Advocate General Lt. Col. Nancy Paul, the military judge presiding over the case, denied most of the motions. The charges stand as filed in October after Jones' Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of an arraignment.
Maj. Conrad Huygen, a member of Jones' defense team, also argued that additional security measures put in place outside the courtroom will cause prejudice among the jury members.
He said he believed it would have a "chilling effect" on the jury.
Every person entering the second floor of the building housing the base's courtroom must go through a metal detector that was placed there specifically for the trial. Air Force security forces also scan everyone with hand-held detectors.
"I am satisfied that the measures being taken are necessary," Paul said, adding that there have been threats against witnesses in this and other courts-martial related to the case.
Military courts-martial are separate from the civil court system. Any punishment is carried out under military code, confinement is in a military prison and the offenses are documented in a person's military record rather than in the civilian criminal court system.
The witness list in Jones' case is long and spans the globe.
A panel of 11 officers and enlisted airmen from the base was called for jury duty, and the opposing counsels spent most of Thursday vetting the members. Extensive questioning reduced the panel to five - three enlisted personnel and two officers. Unlike a civilian jury, members of the panel are allowed to question witnesses. The panel will determine guilt or innocence and determine a sentence if Jones is found guilty.
This trial also seeks to address whether the case is part of what is a growing trend in the U.S. military of gang involvement.
According to a 2006 report by U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division on gang-related activity, 104 suspected gang-related incidents and felony investigations were recorded from 2003 to 2006.
But the report also noted that the growth across the armed forces can be attributed to growing gang influence across the nation, not just in the military.
In 2006, gang-related crimes ranging from sexual assault to drug charges were reported at military bases in every theater of operation, from the United States to Europe and Iraq.
Asked about the situation at the air base in Jacksonville, a spokesman, Tech. Sgt. Kati Garcia, said, "Little Rock Air Force Base does not have a history of gang activity. It is fair to say that any gang involvement here is negligible at best."
The U.S. military is a microcosm of society, she added.
"The positive and negative traits you see across the country are often mirrored in our military," she said.