Four years after the death of a Green Beret veteran following an altercation in Iraq, two Marine Raiders were acquitted Wednesday on charges of involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide.
The jury in the trial at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, convicted Gunnery Sgts. Josh Negron and Danny Draher of one charge: violation of a lawful general order, for drinking alcohol while deployed in Iraq.
The two Marines "never said that they didn't drink," Phillip Stackhouse, Draher's civilian attorney and a Marine veteran, told Marine Corps Times on Thursday morning. In fact, Draher testified on the stand that both he and Negron had been drinking the night of the altercation with 45-year-old Army veteran and contractor Rick Rodriguez, according to Stackhouse.
The prosecutors had argued that the two Marine Raiders, part of a trio of accused men colloquially known as the MARSOC 3, were responsible for Rodriguez's death.
At a bar in Irbil, Iraq, in the early hours of Jan. 1, 2019, Rodriguez had started an argument with Chief Petty Officer Eric Gilmet, a friend of Draher and Negron, witnesses and security footage indicated. Later, on the street outside the bar, Rodriguez became aggressive with Draher, who pushed him backward. Draher testified that Rodriguez had punched him, Stackhouse said.
Then Negron stepped in and punched Rodriguez, sending him to the ground, according to witnesses and security footage.
"I think they acted in self-defense," Stackhouse told Marine Corps Times after the verdict. "I think that the evidence was overwhelming that Mr. Rodriguez initiated the contact."
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By the time the jury began deliberations on Wednesday, Negron and Draher were facing fewer charges than when the trial had started. On Jan. 26, the judge agreed to dismiss obstruction of justice charges against the pair based on a lack of evidence.
On Tuesday, the convening authority, Maj. Gen. Matthew Trollinger of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, withdrew one of the involuntary manslaughter specifications, or descriptions of alleged acts, against Draher, according to MARSOC spokesman Maj. Matthew Finnerty.
It had alleged that Draher killed Rodriguez "by unlawfully striking him with his fist, causing him to fall and hit his head on the ground," according to the charge sheet.
But even the prosecution's witnesses said at trial that it was Negron who punched Rodriguez, knocking him down. The defense maintained that Negron acted to defend Draher from Rodriguez's drunken aggression.
The remaining specification of the involuntary manslaughter charge alleged that Negron and Draher had negligently killed Rodriguez by failing to take him to a hospital in a timely manner.
After the fight, Draher and Negron had left him with Gilmet, a corpsman.
The defense argued, contrary to testimony by some prosecution experts, that Rodriguez may not have died from injuries he sustained from the fight, and that Gilmet was a trusted, experienced corpsman. Stackhouse said that Gilmet testified, under immunity, that he carefully assessed Rodriguez and treated him to the best of his ability.
Gilmet also has been charged with homicide, but wasn't being tried as part of this case. He previously had asked the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces to dismiss the charges against him and is awaiting a decision.
"The persecution of these three stellar servicemembers has been marked by a lack of evidence, unlawful command influence, and faulty legal analysis," Colby Vokey, Gilmet's lawyer, told Marine Corps Times on Thursday. "Given the result in the current case, the government should dismiss the case against Chief Gilmet now. ... it's time to stop this madness and end it once and for all."
Negron and Draher also had faced a dereliction in the performance of duties charge for breaking curfew; the jury also acquitted them of this charge on Wednesday.
The jury deliberated for a little more than two hours before returning a verdict on Wednesday night, Stackhouse said.
Joseph Low IV, Negron's civilian lawyer, didn't provide comment to Marine Corps Times by time of publication.
Marine Corps Times was unable to get any comments from family members by time of publication.
The eight-member jury is likely to determine a sentence on Thursday, according to Stackhouse.
The maximum sentence for violation of a lawful general order is two years' confinement, a dishonorable discharge and forfeiture of all pay and allowances, according to the courts-martial manual.
The maximum for an involuntary manslaughter charge alone would have been much steeper: 10 years' confinement, a dishonorable discharge and forfeiture of all pay and allowances.
The prosecution on Thursday declined to comment on the verdict to Marine Corps Times.
Wednesday's verdict was a "huge relief" for the defense, Stackhouse said.
"So much has happened in the last four years," Stackhouse said. "It's hard to understand that it's over - and right now it's not, because there was a finding of guilty on one of the charges. But it's one of those things where you've been living with it, it's become such a part of you for four years, it's hard to understand that it's over."
A military contractor at the time of his death, Rodriguez had earned five Bronze Stars, including one for valor, and five Army Commendation Medals, one for valor, during more than 20 years in the Army.
Draher enlisted in 2001, and his personal decorations include the Purple Heart Medal, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Navy and Marine Commendation with Valor, Joint Service Achievement Medal, Navy Achievement Medal and the Combat Action Ribbon with one gold star, according to the website of advocacy group United American Patriots.
Negron enlisted in 2000; among his decorations are the Bronze Star Medal with Combat Distinguishing Device, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Navy Marine Corps Achievement Medal and three Combat Action Ribbons, according to United American Patriots.