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KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — On Friday, Spc. James T. Baker salvaged his Army career.

Just barely.

At the close of a general court-martial here, Baker, 26, was reduced in rank to E-1; ordered to forfeit $1,399 of his pay for one month; restricted for 60 days to his place of duty, residence and a few other locations; and given hard labor with no confinement for 90 days.

His crime: operating a vehicle recklessly and fleeing from German police.

He wasn’t drunk. But he did speed — 100 kilometers per hour past the Vogelweh housing gate around 4 a.m. on July 6, 2008, blowing through two stop signs and failing to pull over for a pursuing German police car with blue lights flashing.

No one was hurt, no property was damaged. A soldier who had never been in prior trouble and had served two tours in Iraq, Baker may have been able to put the incident behind him long ago if not for how the chase ended.

At a dead-end street in downtown Kaiserslautern, German police fired nine bullets at Baker’s Jeep Cherokee after it reversed and drove off.

The two veteran police officers, Uwe Langguth and Michael Fields, claimed Baker tried to run them over, forcing them to shoot in self-defense.

Based on the police allegations, Baker was charged with two counts of aggravated assault, a crime that carries a maximum punishment of three years in jail.

In court last week before a nine-member jury and 5th circuit judge Army Col. Timothy Grammel, Baker pleaded guilty to reckless driving and fleeing police. But he maintained his innocence on the assault charges, setting the stage for a two-day trial that raised the question of police wrongdoing and unlawful use of force.

"Wolves in shepherd’s clothing," said defense attorney Army Capt. Thomas Hong. "Police misconduct and cover-up. All these add up to reasonable doubt."

Hong and colleague Capt. Kristy Radio argued that Langguth and Fields claimed Baker tried to run them over to justify firing at the soldier’s fleeing vehicle — a violation of German police doctrine, since Baker had not committed a serious crime.

But military prosecutors Capts. Rebecca Evans and Mark Oppel said the officers were justified in using their weapons. Baker, they said, stepped on the gas while the officers walked in front of his vehicle, trying to get to the driver’s door. They were scared for their lives and wanted to stop Baker from driving recklessly towards the center of Kaiserslautern, where a late-night festival was happening. The German prosecutor’s office, Evans noted, absolved the officers of any wrongdoing. They got their weapons back three days after the incident.

The defense used footage from a video camera in the officers’ car to support their argument. Contradictory testimony from the officers and German investigators seemed to help the defense. "I don’t recall that" was repeated often.

Baker, part of Service Battery, 5th Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery at Rhine Ordnance Barracks, made a tearful apology in court but never testified.

The jury found Baker not guilty of assault. For his two guilty pleas, he could have received a bad-conduct discharge and up to 18 months in jail.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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