S. Korea still pondering hit-and-run case
December 13, 2003
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — South Korean prosecutors have made no decision on a Dec. 1 U.S. military request that it try a soldier involved in a fatal accident last month.
Sgt. Jerry Onken — in U.S. custody at Suwon Air Base — faces Uniform Code of Military Justice charges for fleeing the scene of a Nov. 28 fatal accident. But South Korean officials have primary jurisdiction because he was off-duty when local police said he crashed into another car, killing a 22-year-old South Korean woman.
A Suwon Public Prosecutor’s Office official said no charges had been filed against Onken as of Thursday and no decision had been made on the military’s jurisdiction request. The prosecutor’s office has 42 days — until Jan. 10 — to decide whether to charge Onken. If South Korean charges also are filed, Onken could be held in South Korean custody.
South Korean police said blood drawn six hours after the accident showed Onken had a blood-alcohol level of 0.06 — above South Korea’s 0.05 legal limit.
Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, 8th Army spokesman, said requesting jurisdiction is Defense Department policy. He said Onken, of the 143rd Air Defense Artillery, cannot leave Suwon Air Base unless South Korean authorities want to question him. In that case, Boylan said, the U.S. military will take him to, and return him from, the questioning.
The U.S.-South Korean status of forces agreement regulates handling of military members accused of crimes. The two nations revised it in 2001 after years of South Korean complaints that it unfairly too often let the military retain custody. Now, South Korea can keep soldiers in pre-trial custody if they are charged with serious crimes such as murder, rape, drunken driving resulting in death and fleeing the scene of a fatal accident.
South Korea typically defers jurisdiction to the military except in high-profile cases. According to U.S. Forces Korea, more than 5 percent of the 392 crimes servicemembers committed in South Korea in 2002 comprised traffic accidents. South Korea authorities had the right to prosecute in 300 of those cases but elected to take just 20 of them, according to USFK.
South Korean police have accused Onken of running a signal light around 12:10 a.m. Nov. 28 near the Suwon exit of Highway 1; his car collided with a compact car carrying five people, they said. Police said four were treated for injuries; backseat passenger Ki Kyong-sun died from her injuries.
Police said U.S. and South Korean authorities conducted independent tests of Onken’s blood sample and had the same result. Base officials would not confirm their test results.