Fair trials at Aberdeen called unlikely Pretrial publicity cited at arraignment on sex charges

First public hearings

Defense lawyers ask for gag order on senior officials

December 07, 1996|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Three Army trainers facing court-martial charges of sexual misconduct at Aberdeen Proving Ground cannot get fair trials, because of publicity surrounding the cases, defense attorneys argued yesterday while calling for a gag order on senior officials.

Attorneys for Capt. Derrick Robertson, Sgt. Delmar G. Simpson and Sgt. Nathanael C. Beach told a judge at arraignment proceedings that publicity has damaged their clients' right to a fair trial.

And they criticized a request by Army prosecutors that Lt. Col. Linda Webster, who presided over the arraignments, ban potential jurors from reading, watching or listening to news reports about the cases.

"To issue an order that pool members not be exposed to publicity about this case? It's a little bit late for that," said Capt. Edward W. Brady, Simpson's lawyer.

"This clearly is a case where the government is trying to put the genie back into the bottle," added Maj. Jerome Murphy, Robertson's co-counsel. "The government has already let the genie out."

Beach's attorney, Capt. Vincent Avallone, said statements made Army Secretary Togo West and other high-ranking officials were ruining his client's chances of receiving a fair trial. He suggested that a gag order be issued for the entire chain of command -- including the Secretary of Defense.

Webster's order prohibits about 45 potential jurors from checking media reports about the misconduct scandal. But she deferred making a decision on the gag order; another judge will hear arguments on that request on Tuesday, she said.

The requests came in the first public hearings in a scandal that has rocked the Army and has sparked investigations of fraternization and sexual assault at other military bases.

Yesterday, the three men at the center of the storm, all former trainers at the Army Ordnance Center and School, arrived separately and quietly at a small courthouse at the proving ground.

Simpson, who is accused of rape, forcible sodomy, adultery and obstruction of justice and is the only one of the three being held in confinement, greeted Robertson -- his former superior officer -- with a handshake and a slight smile.

"Just fine, sir," Simpson told Robertson -- who is charged with rape, having an improper relationship with a student, adultery and obstruction of justice -- during a recess after the captain inquired how he was doing. "I'm doing just fine."

Beach, who is charged with adultery, obstructing justice and disobeying an officer, sat near the pair as each was informed of the charges and his legal rights. The men sat solemnly and answered the judge's questions with a quiet "Yes, ma'am" or "No, ma'am."

The men, who will be tried separately early next year, deferred making a plea or deciding whether to be tried by a jury or by a judge.

The pool of potential jurors includes everyone on the base except Ordnance School trainees, said Capt. Craig Minnick, a lawyer for the Army.

"There is a minimum of five panel members for a general court martial, and the defendant can request that one-third of them be enlisted men," Minnick said. "The panel has to be able to sit for six months to hear the case, and that excludes the recruits because they are not here that long."

As arguments were heard during the arraignments, calls continued to come into an Army hot line established to receive sexual misconduct complaints. By yesterday evening, 5,983 calls had been received, with 822 marked for further investigation.

Of the calls referred to investigators, 121 were related to APG and 701 to other sites.

Pub Date: 12/07/96

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