1st ID soldier appealing negligent homicide conviction
June 25, 2006
BAUMHOLDER, Germany — A 1st Infantry Division soldier is trying to get a new trial on grounds that a poorly prepared and inexperienced original defense team hurt, rather than helped, his case.
However, officials with the U.S. Army Trial Defense Service are siding with prosecutors and the Army, denying Pvt. James Leon Parker’s contention that his court-martial was flawed.
After Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hunzeker, the 1st ID commander and court-martial convening authority, denied a clemency appeal last month, high-profile attorney Paul Bergrin vowed to take Parker’s case to the highest appellate court.
Bergrin, who represented soldiers charged with abuses at Abu Ghraib, said the case ultimately could go to the highest military appeals forum, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Services.
A panel of officers and enlisted soldiers convicted Parker, at the time a staff sergeant with Company B, 2nd Battalion, 63rd Armored Regiment, of negligent homicide and dereliction of duty for not ordering the crew of his Abrams tank to clear weapons after returning to Forward Operating Base Marez during a firefight in January 2005.
An M-2, .50-caliber machine gun accidentally discharged, killing Pfc. Gunnar Becker, the tank driver. Becker and another soldier were stowing the M-2 despite a direct order from Parker, the tank commander, not to touch any weapons, according to trial testimony.
“We are vigorously pursuing every avenue for appeal” in winning a reversal and new trial from the Army Court of Appeal, said Bergrin, a New Jersey-based attorney. The court could order a new court-martial for Parker, or could let the conviction stand.
Maj. Thomas Roughneen, the lead attorney in one of Parker’s two original defense teams, has filed statements both in the failed clemency request, and in the current appeal, alleging “ineffective assistance of counsel.”
Ineffective assistance of counsel is a legal term implying the defense provided was so flawed it invalidated the trial.
Roughneen declined to discuss Parker’s case, referring questions to Bergrin.
But in his 1105 statement filed as part of the clemency request and appellate process, Roughneen — a New Jersey prosecutor in civilian life — alleges a number of shortcomings in defense preparation. Those include his own lack of familiarity with military legal procedures as a reservist in his first military trial, and a deteriorating relationship with his co-counsel, who also had no trial experience.
Army officials counter that Parker requested Roughneen as his attorney. They add that Roughneen’s allegations were addressed during the court-martial trial and in the clemency request that Bergrin submitted.
Hunzeker, as court-martial convening authority, considered Roughneen’s allegations in the clemency submissions when he reviewed Parker’s conviction in May, but still approved the sentence of reduction in rank to private and six months confinement, wrote Maj. Bill Coppernoll, 1st ID public affairs officer.
The head of Trial Defense Services, Lt. Col. David Caldwell, echoes Coppernoll’s point, adding that the trial judge also dismissed Roughneen’s contention of insufficient defense.
Caldwell submitted to Stars and Stripes a transcript from a conference between defense attorneys and the judge during Parker’s court-martial: “The military judge found that there had not been a deficient performance by the defense team, and stated that the accused was fully represented in an efficient manner.”
Noting the judge’s findings, Caldwell wrote in a response to a query that “Pvt. Parker’s case is a tragic case, one in which his actions unfortunately carried criminal consequences.” Considering Roughneen was the lead attorney,“(w)e in Trial Defense Service Europe do not accept the claims by the lead counsel in this case of ineffective representation by a member of his trial team,” Caldwell added.
Current defense attorney Bergrin sees the case far differently. Earlier this year, Bergrin told Stars and Stripes the Parker case was an attempt to cover up broader problems within the unit, an argument he repeated in an interview Monday.
“Parker’s the scapegoat,” he said. “Plain and simple.”