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Soldier Accused Of Killing Superior Arraigned At Fort Bragg

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FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Defense attorneys hinted Friday that a Supreme Court decision barring the execution of mentally retarded defendants could keep the Army from seeking a death sentence against the only soldier known to be charged with "fragging" -- or killing his superior officer -- during the Iraq war.

Little else was said by attorneys for Staff Sgt. Alberto Martinez during his arraignment Friday on two counts of premeditated murder. He is charged with killing Capt. Phillip Esposito and 1st Lt. Louis Allen, his superior officers in the 42nd Infantry Division of the New York National Guard. Martinez did not enter a plea, which he can do later under military justice rules.

Col. Patrick Parrish, the judge overseeing the hearing, set a tentative trial date of June 4.

During the 30-minute hearing, defense attorney Maj. Marc Cipriano told Parrish they may raise issues of mental health that would prevent Martinez's execution under a 2002 Supreme Court decision that found sentencing mentally retarded criminals to death violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Both Cipriano and the chief prosecutor, Maj. Craig McNeil, declined to speak to reporters after the hearing.

More than a dozen relatives of the slain Army officers, including the widows of Esposito and Allen, watched Martinez intently from the second row of the courtroom. He did not return their stares.

"I hear him speak and it turns my stomach," said Barbara Allen. "He sucker punched our husbands, but now he's got to deal with us as well as the United States Army."

Esposito, 30, of Suffern, N.Y., was Martinez's company commander. Allen, 34, of Milford, Pa., was the company's operations officer. Barbara Allen now lives in Mount Hope, N.Y.

Allen said her husband was working with Esposito to stop black market sales of military equipment when the men were wounded on June 7, 2005, by grenades and a mine that exploded in Esposito's room at one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces. The men died the next day at a base near Tikrit.

An Army captain testified at a hearing last year in Kuwait that Martinez, 39, of Troy, N.Y., twice told him he hated Esposito and was going to "frag" him, using the Vietnam War term that refers to a soldier killing a superior.

He is also charged with illegally giving government printers to an Iraqi, who has testified that he sold them for about $800, and failing to obey orders prohibiting possession of a private firearm, alcohol and explosives.

Siobhan Esposito, who has a 3-year-old daughter, said this week she wants to attend the hearing to "demand our leaders to require higher standards for those that are allowed to wear the uniform because they represent who we are as a country."

The case is the only known incident of "fragging" during the war in Iraq, said Col. Billy Buckner, a spokesman for the Army's 18th Airborne Corps.

There has been at least one other case of a soldier killing fellow Americans during the war. Last year, a jury at Fort Bragg sentenced 101st Airborne Division Sgt. Hasan Akbar to death for killing two officers and wounding 14 soldiers in a March 2003 attack during which he threw grenades into troop tents and fired on soldiers.

Akbar, the first soldier tried for killing another soldier in wartime since the Vietnam era, said he was upset that American troops would kill fellow Muslims.

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