CHERRY POINT, North Carolina - Two medical experts who testified on Thursday in the "MARSOC 3″ homicide trial made their opinion clear: It was the 2019 altercation with two Marine Raiders in Iraq that led to the death of retired Army is Green Beret Master Sgt. Rick Rodriguez.
Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command Gunnery Sgts. Danny Draher and Josh Negron are on trial for manslaughter, negligent homicide and other smaller offenses.
Late on Thursday night, the judge, Marine Lt. Col. Eric Catto, granted the defense's motion to dismiss the charge of obstruction of justice against Draher and Negron, Draher lawyer and Marine veteran Phillip Stackhouse told Marine Corps Times. The judge found that the prosecution hadn't provided evidence that could lead a reasonable jury to convict on the charge.
Chief Petty Officer Eric Gilmet, a Navy corpsman who tended to Rodriguez after the fight, is set to be tried separately, although he is trying to dismiss his case and he received immunity to testify in this trial, making it harder for him to be prosecuted in the future.
Known collectively as "the MARSOC 3," the special operators have argued they acted in self-defense and tried to save Rodriguez's life.
In homicide trial, Marine Raiders' defense seeks other causes of death
On Tuesday and Wednesday, defense lawyers for Draher and Negron tried to instill doubt in the jury members about Rodriguez's cause of death. The defense suggested that Rodriguez, instead of dying from a head injury he sustained from the fight with Draher and Negron, stopped breathing because of vomit, intoxication or sleep apnea.
But on Thursday, prosecution witnesses Dr. Zachary Hoffer and Navy Lt. Cmdr. John Walsh both opined that Rodriguez had sustained a traumatic brain injury from falling during the fight in Irbil, Iraq, on Jan. 1, 2019. Previous witnesses for the prosecution had said Negron punched Rodriguez, leading him to fall and hit the back of his head; defense lawyers suggested on cross-examination that he acted to defend Draher from Rodriguez's aggression.
Hoffer, an expert in brain autopsies and a former Army lieutenant colonel, testified on direct examination that he had seen "blood where it shouldn't be" when he looked at Rodriguez's brain.
"I found a brain that was severely traumatized," he said, describing the blood, hemorrhaging, bruising and dead tissue.
Hoffer said it appeared that Rodriguez's fatal traumatic brain injury originated from falling during the fight.
On cross-examination, Negron attorney and Marine veteran Joseph Low doubled down on the theory that Rodriguez died from a lack of oxygen, a theory Hoffer was reluctant to allow. Low confirmed that Hoffer hadn't known that Rodriguez had vomit in his airways.
But when Marine prosecutor Lt. Col. Geoff Shows asked him a second round of questions, Hoffer stood by his assessment: Rodriguez died because of complications from the fall.
Walsh, a medical examiner who reviewed the autopsy report, also said that the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head.
Low's cross-examination centered on Walsh's lack of information about other possible causes of death, as well as the prosecutors' testimony prep session with Walsh - a line of questioning the judge asked the jury to disregard.
Following the testimony from the two experts, the prosecution rested its case.
The doctors' testimony on Thursday doesn't rule out other defense theories - including that Negron and Draher acted in self-defense - and it doesn't mean the jury will decide there is no reasonable doubt about the cause of death. But it will likely make it easier for prosecutors to tie Rodriguez's death to the two Marines' actions.
Before the testimony, the lawyers spent much of Thursday morning debating, with the jury out of the room, whether Walsh could even discuss the autopsy report.
A different military doctor, now retired in New Zealand, had compiled it but was apparently unwilling to testify at this trial. Defense lawyers argued that letting Walsh discuss the report in court would constitute hearsay.
After reviewing legal precedent and hearing from Walsh that the report was mostly fact-based, Catto decided that Walsh was allowed to testify about its findings.