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JEONJU, South Korea — Two U.S. airmen and an American base worker gave contradictory statements during their first day in South Korean court Thursday on charges they beat and attempted to rob a taxi driver near Kunsan Air Base earlier this year.

Prosecutors charged Airman 1st Class Michael Carpenter, Airman Travis Martens and Paul Chessbro in connection with the April 22 incident.

Carpenter, 27, and Martens, 24, are Security Forces personnel. Chessbro is a 21-year-old civilian who worked on base. Each appeared in court represented by his own defense attorney.

Prosecutors told the court that the three tried to break into two unattended vehicles before catching the taxi and attacking the driver that night.

Chessbro told prosecutors that he attempted to protect the driver from Martens, who had grabbed the man by the neck and began punching him from the back seat without provocation.

When the taxi driver fled, Chessbro told the court he followed to protect him from Martens. Chessbro said he learned after the incident that Martens had a reputation for bad behavior while drinking.

Martens, however, told the court a different story — and also testified that he’s been receiving post-traumatic stress disorder treatment following a 2005 deployment to Iraq.

Martens said he grabbed the driver when he thought the man was reaching for a weapon during what appeared to be an argument in Korean with Chessbro.

Martens told the court he never struck the driver.

“I’ve been a cop for five years,” he said. “If you hit someone you’re going to bruise your hands.”

He said pictures taken after the incident show no bruising.

Carpenter corroborated that part of Martens’ story.

Martens “did grab him, but was not hitting him,” Carpenter told the court.

Carpenter said he witnessed the night’s events, but didn’t participate. He said he felt threatened by Chessbro, who claimed he was a black belt in karate.

At one point during the night, Carpenter said, his companions decided to steal a car. When he told them it was a bad idea, he said, Chessbro threatened to hit him.

Carpenter said he walked away from the taxi-driver incident because he couldn’t bear to watch and because he feared for his safety if he tried to stop it. Prosecutors told the court he was acting as a lookout.

The South Korean judge asked the defense attorneys to research whether cultural differences might have played a factor in the incident. He asked them to find out whether the actions were “common sense” in America.

Specifically, he wanted to know why Chessbro and Carpenter exchanged clothing after Chessbro’s mother called to say the police were looking for him that night.

The defendants have paid the driver 3.3. million won — about $3,600 each — a common practice in the South Korean court system. Judges take any settlements into account when deciding on a sentence.

The incident led then-wing commander Col. Jeffrey Lofgren to restrict servicemembers to base for more than five days in April.

Lofgren said at the time that he’d imposed the restriction to impress upon each servicemember that conduct toward the local community must be “above reproach.”

The cab driver, 48-year-old Lee Ki-jung, has said he was hospitalized for nerve damage and head, knee and other injuries sustained in the incident. He was discharged from Kunsan Medical Center on May 4, but he has said he requires outpatient care.

He is expected to testify when the case resumes Aug. 14.


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