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The Honolulu Advertiser

By William Cole

Posted on: Sunday, May 17, 2009

Army mum on shooting

 •  Philippines makes progress on terror, but not Moros

The U.S. military normally releases charge sheets to the media when one of its own is accused of a crime.

Not so in the Jan. 11 death in Iraq of a Schofield Barracks soldier, allegedly at the hands of a comrade.

And that's disturbing to veteran Honolulu defense attorney Eric Seitz, who has handled hundreds of military cases.

"I've never heard anybody specifically ask for and not receive a charge sheet," Seitz said. "But it is consistent with what I understand to be (the U.S. military's) general policy, which is they reserve the right to refuse to give any court-martial-related documents to the media or anybody else who asks for them."

Seitz thinks it's wrong.

"I think these are public proceedings and they are criminal proceedings and there is a right to a public trial, which is also a right the media enjoys, and I think it's a blatant 1st Amendment violation," he said.

Charge sheets specify alleged criminal acts with some detail.

On April 30, the U.S. command Multi-National Corps-Iraq issued a news release saying Sgt. Miguel A. Vegaquinones, 33, had been charged with involuntary manslaughter and making a false official statement.

The military said Pfc. Sean P. McCune, 20, died after allegedly being shot by Vegaquinones following their guard duty shift in Samarra, Iraq.

The cause of death was a "negligent discharge from Vegaquinones' weapon," the military said in the release.

Vegaquinones is from Havelock, N.C. McCune is from Euless, Texas. Both soldiers were with the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry, 3rd Brigade Combat Team at Schofield Barracks.

The Advertiser asked for the charge sheet. The Army said no.

"There are factors to be weighed in each case when deciding whether or not to release the charge sheet," said Maj. Cathy Wilkinson, the public affairs officer for the 3rd Brigade. "It's not an automatic rule that charge sheets have to be released immediately upon preferral of charges. In this instance, the lawyers have reviewed the merits of releasing the charge sheet and balanced that with the defense's cooperation and requested the charge sheet not be released yet."

Vegaquinones is being represented by a military attorney from Trial Defense Services and does not have a civilian attorney, Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson said she anticipates the charge sheet will be released at an Article 32 hearing for Vegaquinones, which is set for June 4 at Contingency Operating Base Speicher near Tikrit.

An Article 32 hearing is akin to a civilian grand jury or preliminary hearing, and is used to determine whether there is enough evidence to merit a general court-martial.