SAN ANTONIO — Two soldiers who worked as guards at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba will go on trial next month in San Antonio on charges of sexually abusing women under their command.
First Sgt. Richard A. Smith faces life in prison for raping one woman while Sgt. Stevontae Lacefield is accused of sexually assaulting a specialist. They are accused of misconduct with other subordinates - soldiers they were duty-bound to protect.
It is the first time NCOs at Joint Task Force Guantanamo, where 154 detainees are now held, have faced sexual-assault trials.
Smith's court-martial will start April 3 and comes in the wake of a widely criticized reprimand given to Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, a one-star general who last week pleaded guilty to having a lengthy affair and mistreating his mistress, a subordinate.
Lacefield's trial will begin April 8.
“This type of behavior tears away at the fiber of trust that must exist between all soldiers in peacetime and combat,” said Col. Hans Bush, a spokesman for Army South. “The facts in these cases will determine the outcome and we have full confidence in the military justice system.”
They'll face judges at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, the scene of 28 trials over the past two years dealing with sexual misconduct in basic training.
U.S. Southern Command in Miami oversees the Guantanamo Bay prison that has held suspected terrorists since 2002. But Army South, which moved to the old Brooke Army Medical Center on Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston 10 years ago, supports the Miami command.
Army South acts as the convening authority for Army personnel at the prison. It never has held a trial here in which a guard was accused of assaulting another GI.
The most serious charge against Smith, from Orlando, Fla., is that he raped a sergeant at or near the Guantanamo Bay prison on Jan. 24. He also was accused of unlawful sexual contact by biting a corporal's neck.
Prosecutors say Smith groped a woman's legs, had an affair with a sergeant even though he was married, lied to commanders and had an improper relationship with a corporal he commanded. The Army alleges he had sex with a specialist while she was in his command.
Lacefield, from Waukesha, Wis., was charged with using his body weight to restrain a specialist in a May 26 attack at or near the U.S. Naval Station. He then allegedly kissed her face and neck, even after the woman told him to stop, and groped her as well.
The Army said Lacefield sought to have sexual relationships with four women, all of them privates. He provided alcohol to a soldier under 21 and entertained another GI in his room - both violations of an order.
The charge sheet said Lacefield misled his first sergeant when asked about an incident with one specialist, and told a private first class that he needed her to work in his cell block when it wasn't necessary. He allegedly singled her out to pick up trash and told a private “she needed to hook him up” with another soldier.
While Smith could be given life in prison on the rape charge alone, it wasn't clear what the maximum sentence is for Lacefield. Sexual assault victims in the military often say they were harassed or attacked by people in authority, former Marine Corps infantry officer Greg Jacob said, adding that the armed services tend to value those of higher rank.
“In a lot of cases that power dynamic is exploited by these predatory individuals simply because they know that they are more valued and they are worth more to the institution than these lower-ranking individuals,” said Jacob, policy director for Service Women's Action Network, which battles military harassment, discrimination and assault.
Retired Air Force Col. Morris Davis, who was chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay from September 2005 to October 2007, said rank and power disparities often are in play.
“I would say more often than not that's the case. It's not always. Sometimes it is peer on peer or the victim may outrank the accused, but probably more often than not the victim tends to be the junior person of the two,” he said.
Davis and Geoffrey Corn, an expert on wartime legal issues in the Army, described Guantanamo Bay duty as stressful. The GIs serve nine-month tours and deal with prisoners who throw human waste at them.
“If I was a prosecutor I would expect that if they get convicted, they may offer mitigation evidence of how stressful it was and they were isolated, but my response would be you guys are the best of the best,” Corn said.
“And if you've got a senior NCO it's even more aggravating,” added Corn, a retired Army lawyer and professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston, “because you're the guy who should be protecting your subordinates from all of the pressures of this place, not victimizing them.”