1st AD soldier guilty of aggravated assault in stabbing death at nightclub
Stars and Stripes December 12, 2004
WIESBADEN, Germany — A military panel found Army Pvt. Nestor K. Velazquez guilty of aggravated assault in the stabbing death last April of a man at a popular Mainz-Kastel nightclub.
Deliberating for nearly nine hours over two days at the courtroom on Wiesbaden Army Airfield, the six-member jury opted for conviction on a charge far less serious than unpremeditated murder, which the prosecution had sought.
If convicted of that charge, Velazquez could have received a life sentence. Instead, the 19-year-old Brooklyn native will receive a sentence of no more than three years in prison, and possibly much less, given that he has served 237 days in pre-trial confinement.
At press time Saturday the jury was still in the sentencing phase of the case.
“Panels do what they think is right, and what they think is right depends on a lot of different things,” said Maj. Meg Foreman, one of two prosecutors in the case. “The verdict is only half the picture.”
The decision was greeted with stone silence by the family and friends of Santo Scardino, the 18-year-old son of Italian immigrants. Scardino was stabbed five times on April 18 during a chaotic fight at the Euro Palace that pit Velazquez and another soldier against Scardino and at least four of his friends.
“Is that what my son’s life is worth?” Maria-Rita Scardino, the victim’s mother, asked through a translator.
When a recess was called after the verdict, Velazquez turned around and hugged his tearful mother, whispering consoling words to her.
Security was unusually high in the courtroom for the last two days as the trial neared its conclusion amid fears spectators might disrupt proceedings.
Defense attorneys argued during the six-day trial that Velazquez and Pfc. Anquan Huggins, both 1st Armored Division soldiers, were making their way to the restroom when Scardino approached Huggins to renew a dispute Velazquez had mediated roughly 30 minutes earlier.
Huggins, who was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony, admitted he threw the first punch. Velazquez’s attorneys maintained Velazquez was caught up in a row not of his desire or making.
Only when the two soldiers were outnumbered and objects were being thrown did Velazquez pull out his knife in self-defense, the attorneys said.
The defense said it is not entirely clear what happened, in part because of a shoddy investigation by German police, who originally had jurisdiction in the case. That included the loss of a second knife recovered from the bar, and the release of a suspect who was seen dropping the presumed murder weapon, said Capt. Will Helixon, a defense attorney.
“It was a carefully considered opinion by the panel, and they obviously didn’t believe, by a reasonable doubt, that our client killed Mr. Scardino,” Helixon said.
Prosecutors, however, felt strongly that Velazquez was responsible for Scardino’s death. Their case relied heavily on blood and DNA evidence, and on Velazquez’s admission to friends and German police that he thought he stabbed a couple of people during the fight.
Outside the court, shortly after the verdict was read, Scardino’s mother could be seen and heard weeping inconsolably, and repeatedly invoking her son’s name.
“Santo was so popular,” Marino Concetta, a close family friend, said back in the courtroom. “Everybody loved him. He was a good boy. He did not deserve such a destiny.”