No outcry over Korea-based soldier's suspended sentence
Stars and Stripes
SEOUL — Last year, a pair of high-profile rapes committed by U.S. soldiers prompted demonstrations and scathing criticism from politicians and the South Korean media. But a South Korean court’s decision this week to reduce and suspend the sentence of a Camp Carroll-based soldier convicted of rape drew virtually no attention.
Pvt. Joseph Finley, 31, of the 2-1 Air Defense Artillery Battalion, was convicted by the Daegu district court in February of rape resulting in injury and was sentenced to three years in prison. On Monday, the Daegu High Court reduced his sentence by six months and suspended all punishment for three years – meaning he will serve no prison time if he commits no other crimes during that period.
The decision is equivalent to Finley being put on probation.
There was little, if any, mention this week of Finley’s case in the South Korean press. Even in Waegwan, the city surrounding Camp Carroll, it seemed that few, if any, residents knew about Monday’s decision.
Han Suk Mon, a computer salesman, said he had heard about Finley’s case during his initial trial in February, but did not know about the reduced sentence until he was contacted by a reporter on Friday. He called the decision “unfair.”
“He got a lesser sentence because he was a U.S. soldier,” Han said. “If people know about this, they will oppose it.”
U.S. military crime has long been a sensitive issue in South Korea, where many believe the status of forces agreement between the two countries allows American troops to skirt South Korean law or receive unfairly lenient punishments.
Even today, South Koreans point to the deaths of two 13-year-old girls, Shin Hyo-soon and Shim Mi-sun, who were run over by a U.S. military vehicle near Dongducheon 10 years ago, as an example. Both soldiers in the vehicle were acquitted of negligent homicide in separate courts-martial, leaving South Koreans aghast that nobody was punished for the girls’ deaths.
That indignation was revived last fall, when two U.S. soldiers raped South Korean teenagers in separate incidents. In the more prominent of the two cases, Pvt. Kevin Lee Flippin was sentenced to 10 years in prison for brutally raping a teenager at her home – the longest sentence given to a U.S. servicemember in South Korea in nearly 20 years.
In the second case, Pvt. Kevin Robinson was sentenced to six years in prison for raping a South Korean teen and stealing her laptop. He has appealed his sentence.
Both cases led to an outcry in South Korea against a perceived increase in U.S. Forces Korea crime, and was part of the reason for the reinstatement of an off-post curfew in October.
In Finley’s case, a Daegu High Court judge, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said Friday the court did not take Finley’s military service into account when reducing his sentence.
Nor was a possible backlash from the public, which he said has shown little interest in the case so far, taken into consideration. What the court did consider, the judge said, was an agreement the victim made with Finley, the terms of which have not been disclosed.
A court spokesman said earlier this week the victim asked that Finley not be punished.
“It seems that nobody wants to give Finley a strict punishment,” the judge said, who cautioned that the Finley case should not be interpreted as a political statement.
In the South Korean judicial system, agreements —which may include monetary compensation — between defendants and victims are taken into account during sentencing, usually resulting in lesser punishments for the defendants.
The judge also said that Finley does not appear to be a hardened criminal and has apologized for the rape.
Pyo Chang-won, a professor of public administration at the Korean National Police University in Yongin, near Seoul, said Finley’s case was not the sort of crime that typically draws attention in South Korea, such as crimes of extreme violence, murder or sexual violence against children.
The most important thing is the attitude of the victim and her family, Pyo said.
“If the victim is satisfied with the results of the trial or doesn’t express anger or a sense of injustice, then other people don’t express their emotions about it,” he said.
Several soldiers interviewed outside U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul had not heard about Finley’s case, and some initially thought they were being asked about the highly publicized Flippin rape.
All those interviewed strongly opposed the changes in Finley’s sentence, however.
“If he did it, it doesn’t seem to reflect well on us,” said Staff Sgt. Joel Maldonado, adding that it would hurt relations between the U.S. and South Korea. “If he did it, that’s crazy.”
“I just think it’s ridiculous that they would reduce it,” said Capt. Latundra Davis. “I’m just wondering, what were the circumstances?”
“I’m sure Koreans have the same question,” Davis said. “why would they let him out?”