Prosecutor seeking five-year prison term for Onken
January 31, 2004
SUWON, South Korea — A South Korean prosecutor asked for a five-year sentence for a U.S. Army sergeant accused of causing a drunken-driving crash that killed a South Korean woman.
Sgt. Jerry Onken, 33, of the 1st Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery at Suwon Air Base, could have faced life in prison on charges he ran a stop light Nov. 28, killing Ki Kyoung-sun.
During an emotional day in court, the victim’s father shouted in Korean from the gallery, “You fled the scene when my daughter was dying. And you call yourself a soldier?”
Onken, wearing his green dress uniform, did not turn around or react visibly.
Judge Kim Chul-hyun admonished the father for the outburst and said he would be allowed to speak later.
When the father — who wasn’t named in court and declined to provide his name to Stripes — testified later in the day, he said he could have forgiven Onken had he helped the victims immediately after the crash.
But because Onken left, “your behavior was lower than that of dogs,” he said.
The father asked the court for the maximum punishment of life in prison.
“I’m very truly sorry,” Onken said when given the opportunity to speak to the court. “There’s not much I can say. I cannot find the words to explain. I beg for leniency.”
Defense attorney Park Seon-ki argued for leniency, saying until now Onken never had been convicted of a crime and that he was very sorry for the accident.
Several other U.S. soldiers watched the hearing, including Onken’s platoon leader, who testified Onken was a responsible soldier who earned many awards during his 13-year Army career.
It’s the first case in which South Korean authorities have held a U.S. soldier in custody before sentencing, under an agreement established with the United States in 2001. He is being held at the Seoul Detention Center in Uiwang, about a 30-minute drive from the Suwon courthouse.
Prosecutors have accused Onken of having a blood alcohol level above the legal limit of .05 percent.
South Korean police said a blood test showed Onken’s blood alcohol level was .06 percent six hours after the accident.
During Onken’s first hearing Jan. 15, prosecutors estimated his blood alcohol level at .103 percent at the time of the crash.
Onken testified during the first hearing that he and two other soldiers left the accident scene because they were scared.
Onken said he returned to his barracks room at Suwon Air Base, where he drank two beers and smoked cigarettes because he was nervous.
Earlier that evening before the accident, Onken said, he drank three beers and two whiskey cocktails between 4:30 and 6:30. Onken said he stopped drinking and was sightseeing until the 12:10 a.m. crash.
Onken admitted driving his Hyundai Sonata at about 49 mph through a traffic signal. His vehicle collided with a compact car carrying five people. He said he mistakenly went through the signal.
The U.S. military paid the family about $9,400 for funeral expenses, but the family is asking for about $406,000.
During Thursday’s hearing, Onken agreed with his attorney’s characterization that he did not have much money, and the U.S. government would cover the claim with Ki’s family.
Onken had AIG car insurance, but the company said it was expired at the time of the crash.
Onken did not receive a notice the insurance had expired, his attorney said at the last hearing.
Onken served in the 1991 Gulf War, Bosnia and Afghanistan. He arrived for his second tour in South Korea in April.
Sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 5.