Trial of soldier accused in fatal stabbing at club goes to jury
WIESBADEN, Germany — They sat at opposite ends of the courtroom, as families in these situations often do.
On one end, next to Army prosecutors and the jury, was the Scardino family. Santo Scardino was stabbed to death in a nightclub brawl on April 18.
“I always think of Santo, day and night. I can’t sleep,” Scardino’s father, Attilio Scardino, an Italian immigrant, said through an interpreter at Wiesbaden Army Airfield.
On the other side, behind the defense table, sat the family and friends of Pvt. Nestor K. Velazquez, charged with the unpremeditated murder of the younger Scardino.
“There are very few students I would come this far for,” said Mel Goodman, who taught Velazquez at Franklin K. Lane High School in Brooklyn, N.Y.
But Goodman came to support Velazquez, whom he characterized as respectful and peaceful.
Prosecutors argued that Velazquez can’t be that peaceful if he stabbed a man to death and injured three others in a Wiesbaden-area nightclub.
The defense contends that events that night aren’t that simple, and if Velazquez did stab anyone, he did so in self-defense.
At press time, the six-member panel was deliberating Velazquez’s fate. If convicted of unpremeditated murder, he could be sentenced to anywhere from no time in jail to a life sentence.
After six hours of deliberations Friday, the panel adjourned without a decision. They will reconvene Saturday.
The day began with instructions from the judge to the jury, followed by closing arguments. Judge (Col.) Denise Lind told jurors that they may consider lesser charges, such as manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter and aggravated battery. She also informed them of the legal definition of self-defense.
Maj. Meg Foreman, one of the prosecutors, said in her closing remarks that Velazquez stabbed Scardino in five places. She emphasized this point by repeatedly stabbing into the air as if re-enacting the attack.
The victim’s blood was found on Velazquez’s clothing, she said, and his DNA — taken from skin cells — was recovered from the knife handle. By brandishing his knife, Velazquez turned a fistfight into a bloody mess, she said.
Defense attorneys said it more than a fistfight. There were bottles, glasses and ashtrays flying and Velazquez was afraid for his safety as well as that of a fellow soldier he was trying to protect.
Capt. Will Helixon, one of the defense attorneys, blasted German investigators in Wiesbaden, calling their work “pitiful” and “second-rate.”
A second knife found in the bar was lost by investigators, Helixon recounted. They also released a man whom a witness positively identified as the person who dropped the first knife.
In addition, Helixon questioned the handling of evidence, including the knife presumed to be the murder weapon.
German police passed the knife around “like a baton in a 400-meter relay,” Helixon said.
But Attilio Scardino said he is sure they have the right man.
There is “his statement to [German] police [that he thought he stabbed some people], his DNA and the knife and the blood on the clothes and knife,” the father said of Velazquez.
The defense had portrayed Scardino as a troublemaker, based on several people’s statements, including nightclub employees. They also produced medical evidence indicating that the 19-year-old was drunk and high on drugs at the time of the brawl that led to his death.
The Scardinos immigrated to Germany from Sicily and settled in nearby Budenheim. Attilio Scardino described his son as “a good kid.”
“Santo had many dreams, but he had one special dream,” his father said. “He wanted to be a famous soccer player.”
Nestor Velazquez just wanted to put some distance between himself and the gang-infested Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up.
His mother, Sofia Hernandez, and Goodman and others who spoke on his behalf portrayed the soldier as a peaceful soul, someone who knew how to avoid trouble.
Goodman said Velazquez had a habit of cutting classes but then turned himself around and became a role-model student, volunteering for after-school programs and helping younger students.
“I feel confident,” Hernandez said of her son’s chances for acquittal. “My son acted in self-defense.”