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Ramstein airman won't face death penalty in AFN murder case

The Air Force will not pursue the death penalty in the case against an airman accused of murdering an AFN broadcaster, paving the way for German authorities to release evidence they were withholding because the German constitution bans cooperation in cases that could result in a death sentence.

Ramstein-based Staff Sgt. Sean M. Oliver was charged in March with murder in the strangulation death of Petty Officer 2nd Class Dmitry Chepusov, a broadcaster assigned to American Forces Network in Kaiserslautern. German police stopped Oliver on Dec. 14 in Kaiserslautern for driving erratically and found Chepusov’s lifeless body in the passenger seat of Oliver’s car.

Oliver was also assigned to AFN at the time of Chepusov’s death.

When Oliver stands trial in January, he will face a maximum penalty of life without parole, the 86th Airlift Wing public affairs office said Wednesday.

German authorities have been withholding physical evidence from military prosecutors, including the victim’s throat, amid concerns that the U.S. would pursue the death penalty, which was abolished in Germany in 1949. German authorities said they are prohibited by law from cooperating in cases that may lead to a death penalty.

Lt. Gen. Darryl L. Roberson, the convening authority in the case, referred the matter on Friday as a non-capital case based on the evidence and advice from the Staff Judge Advocate. When asked whether military investigators have received the withheld evidence form the Germans, 86th Air Wing officials referred questions to German authorities.

Udo Gehring, Kaiserslautern’s lead prosecutor, wasn’t immediately aware of the Air Force ruling but said if the death penalty is off the table, his office stands ready to cooperate.

“We certainly will give legal assistance to the American authorities,” Gehring said.

Although German authorities, who did the initial autopsy, cooperated at the start with U.S. military investigators, they withheld the throat and other evidence when they turned Chepusov’s body over to U.S. authorities amid concerns it would be a death penalty case.

Initially, the Americans had provided assurances that it would be a non-capital case, but U.S. officials later said Oliver could face execution, German officials said. That prompted the Germans to hold back some of the physical evidence.

In reality, however, application of the death penalty against military members is exceedingly rare.

No military member has been executed since 1961, when Army Pvt. John Bennett was hanged for raping an 11-year-old Austrian girl seven years earlier and attempting to drown her. Andrew Witt, convicted of killing a fellow airman and his wife at Warner Robins Air Force Base in Georgia in 2004, is the only airman on death row at Fort Leavenworth’s prison.

Stars and Stripes reporter Marcus Kloeckner contributed to this report.

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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