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Parker’s legal teams claim he has been made a scapegoat

Members of Staff Sgt. James Parker’s new legal team are, from left, attorney Paul W. Bergrin, associate Brook Barnett and investigator Richard Russell.

TERRY BOYD / S&S

By TERRY BOYD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 19, 2006

Without Maj. Thomas Roughneen, Pvt. James Leon Parker might have disappeared into the Army’s criminal justice system.

But in an unusual move, Roughneen, Parker’s defense attorney, alerted the media about Parker’s court proceedings, going so far as to e-mail a detailed description of the case. In a court-martial last Thanksgiving, Parker, then a staff sergeant, was convicted of dereliction of duty and negligent homicide in the accidental discharge death of Pfc. Gunnar D. Becker.

Before the lawyer’s alert, the Army had not made public the circumstances of Becker’s death, nor the fact that Parker was being tried.

Roughneen, a New Jersey National Guard officer, would later send out another synopsis of the court-martial, this time to fellow New Jersey attorney Paul Bergrin, a retired Army officer known for his defense of Sgt. Javal Davis, a 372nd Military Police Company soldier, who was tried as part of the Abu Ghraib abuse trials.

Picking up Parker’s case, Bergrin and his investigator, Richard Russell, argue that Parker is the scapegoat in an incident in which no one else in the chain of command — including the soldier who actually caused the discharge — received so much as a letter of reprimand.

On Jan. 13, 2005, Becker was killed by an accidental discharge on the Abrams tank that Parker was commanding at Forward Operating Base Marez near Mosul, Iraq. Becker and another soldier, Sgt. Indarr Eugenia Mallari, were handling a heavy machine gun when the M248’s unguarded “butterfly” trigger accidentally depressed, firing a .50-caliber round into Becker’s head.

Defying Parker’s direct order not to touch the weapons, Becker and Mallari were trying to stow the weapon, according to Bergrin and Russell. Parker was charged in the incident because his tank crew did not to clear weapons as the tank entered the FOB during a firefight.

A miscarriage of justice, according to Roughneen and Bergrin, is that Parker was convicted even though he had ordered his crew not to touch the weapons.

Despite the heavy fighting — nine soldiers were injured in the firefight — Parker was preparing to return to the battle outside the FOB, something none of the other soldiers was anxious to do, according to Roughneen.

“What was wrong with SSG Parker?” he wrote in his narrative account to the media. “Why was he insistent on returning to the violent firefight?”

Entering the FOB after a mortar attack, Parker did not tell his crew to clear weapons, Roughneen wrote. That was, however, not unusual practice at the FOB. In fact, two Strykers escorting Parker’s tank did not stop to clear their weapons, according to testimony.

At the time of the discharge, Parker was sitting in his command position with his radio headset on and map in hand, monitoring the firefight on his Blue Forces Tracker Computer System, plotting a course back to the battle. He could neither see nor hear what Becker and Mallari were doing, Roughneen and Bergrin contend.

At one point, Mallari turned off the tank’s radios, prompting Parker to scream, “Why the [expletive] are you turning off the radio? Turn it back on!”

The circumstances that led to Becker’s death began long before the shooting itself, according to Roughneen and Parker’s wife, DeRessia Parker.

Parker was “sliced away” from his regular unit, 2nd Battalion, 63rd Armored Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division, and reassigned to a Stryker Brigade Task force under the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division.

Arriving at his new unit, Parker — who had just been promoted to tank commander — and other noncommissioned officers tried without success to “level” crew experience by mixing experienced and inexperienced tankers. DeRessia Parker said her husband, a career soldier, expressed deep concerns about the ability of his own men. At one point, Parker ordered one of his soldiers not to handle the M-2 after a platoon sergeant described the soldier’s handling of weapons as “nightmarish,” according to Rougheen’s account. Indeed, Bergrin and Russell said, Parker’s crew was not even qualified on the M-2.

By contrast, Parker’s nine-year career had been exemplary, without any safety violations, according to Bergrin, Roughneen and DeRessia Parker.

In addition to other medals and letters of recommendation, Parker was awarded the Army Commendation Medal with a “valor” device for bravery and heroism in the battle of Baqouba in November 2004.

In addition to the circumstances leading up to Becker’s death, Bergrin asserts there were irregularities in Parker’s court-martial, including critical files being destroyed and some files not being turned over to defense attorneys .

Roughneen also called the Criminal Investigation Command case flawed, with all the incidents contributing to the accident “minimized.”