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QUANTICO MARINE BASE, Va. — The fate of a Marine charged in the traffic death of a Romanian rock star could hinge on demonstrations outside the U.S. Consulate in Bucharest and with exactly whom the protesters were angry.

In order to prove negligent homicide — one of four charges against Staff Sgt. Christopher VanGoethem — the Uniformed Code of Military Justice requires proof not only of carelessness but also “discredit” upon a servicemember’s service, according to Marine Lt. Col. Kirk Kumagai, acting deputy staff judge advocate for Marine Corps Base Quantico.

VanGoethem, former commander of the Marine security detachment at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, Romania, is facing charges stemming from a Dec. 4, 2004, traffic accident that resulted in the death of Romanian musician Teofil Peter.

The lead prosecutor, Marine Capt. Charles Miracle, argued Wednesday that the two days of protests Romanians staged outside the U.S. Consulate in Bucharest after Peter’s death showed that VanGoethem caused “direct discredit on the Marine Corps.”

But Marine Capt. Paula McNair, one of VanGoethem’s defenders, said that what really triggered the Bucharest demonstrations was the embassy’s decision to fly VanGoethem back to the United States less than 24 hours after the crash.

VanGoethem was sent to Quantico, where he has been assigned to the Marine Corps Security Battalion and performing administrative duties ever since.

McNair said the demonstrators were objecting to the appearance of the U.S. government “whisking away one of its diplomats” to escape local justice.

In VanGoethem’s case, “I imagine different people in that crowd had different motivations” for participating in the demonstrations, said the judge, Marine Lt. Col. Mark McConnell, including the fact that Peter was “a rock star many people were sentimental toward.”

But, McConnell said, those motivations “are not relevant” if prosecutors can show the seven-member board (the military equivalent of a jury) that the protests were “tied to [VanGoethem’s] misconduct.”

In addition to negligent homicide, VanGoethem is accused of adultery, obstructing justice and making false official statements. The maximum punishment for each of the four charges VanGoethem faces includes a dishonorable discharge and forfeiture of all pay and benefits.

All four punishments also include possible jail time: a maximum of three years for negligent homicide; one year for adultery; and five years for each of the other two charges, Kumagai said. The punishments are cumulative, Kumagai said, which means that VanGoethem could spend up to 14 years in the brig if he is found guilty and receives the maximum sentence on all four charges.

Prosecutors and defenders in the court-martial spent most of Friday behind closed doors, working out an agreement over the English translation of Romanian traffic laws.


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