A 25-year-old Army sergeant from Dundalk has been found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for erratically driving a Humvee that flipped during a midnight patrol in Iraq and crushed to death a fellow soldier.
A military judge sentenced Sgt. Oscar L. Nelson III to seven years in military prison and ordered a dishonorable discharge. If the sentence withstands review, Nelson could be released in three to five years, military officials told his family after a two-day general court-martial this week in Tikrit, Iraq.
The verdict marks the latest turn in a case that has devastated two families, the one from Dundalk that unofficially adopted Nelson a dozen years ago and the relatives of Spc. Nathaniel A. Caldwell Jr., a 27-year-old father of two who hoped to become a minister.
For some in Caldwell's family, the pain of losing "Nate," as he was known, in a senseless accident is compounded by what his mother labeled an inadequate sentence for Nelson.
"Seven years?" said Marion Brooks, who stayed at her home in Arizona for the trial because of recent surgery. "Why bother having a trial at all? The punishment didn't fit the crime."
Nelson had been charged with unpremeditated murder and faced the possibility of life in prison. When the military trial began Sunday at a palace built for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Nelson pleaded guilty to negligent homicide. In letters home, he had admitted turning off the Humvee's headlights May 21 while horsing around, then hitting the gas seconds before the vehicle struck a large bump and overturned.
Nelson also pleaded guilty to lying to investigators by claiming he was chasing Iraqi looters when Caldwell died. In addition, he admitted he unlawfully shot a rifle six days earlier when he fired toward fellow soldiers - an unrelated act that he said was a joke.
The military judge, a colonel, changed the negligent homicide charge to involuntary manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. Nelson was also found guilty of obstruction of justice stemming from the lies to investigators. The case was decided Monday, but military officials confirmed the outcome only yesterday.
The judge "is sending a message to all the troops, because troops are out hot-dogging in vehicles," said Larry Steele, who unofficially adopted Nelson with his wife, Teresa, and traveled 6,000 miles to attend the trial. "A lot of soldiers told us that. The problem is they're bored."
Teresa Steele said she had hoped for a shorter sentence but no longer feels Nelson should have avoided punishment. "Knowing what I know now, he's guilty of what he was charged with," she said Tuesday after she and her husband returned to the United States. "He did drive his vehicle recklessly, and a man died for it."
Nevertheless, she said she was proud that Nelson, who had never cried in front of her, stood up at the court-martial and, sobbing, apologized for causing Caldwell's death in the early-morning hours near the front gate of their unit's desert camp. "You can never ask anything more from a child," she said.
Nelson showed up at the Steeles' home in Dundalk one day in the early 1990s when he was 13. Their eldest biological son, Larry W. Steele, said his friend needed a place to stay because of trouble at home. The Steeles never formally adopted Oscar but raised him as their son. He joined the Marines at 18 and then enlisted in the Army. He repaired generators in the 404th Aviation Support Battalion where Caldwell was a tank mechanic.
Case due for review
After the court-martial, Nelson was to be taken to Germany and will likely serve his sentence at the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. But first, Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, commanding general of the 4th Infantry Division, will review the case as the convening authority; he could reduce the sentence or throw out the convictions. The next step would be an automatic appeal to the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals in Arlington, Va.
"It is not uncommon for a sentence to be reduced by the convening authority or court of criminal appeals," said attorney Eugene R. Fidell, president of the nonprofit National Institute of Military Justice.
One legal expert with experience in military cases said Nelson's punishment was appropriate, given the facts. "This was always a manslaughter case; it was just overcharged as a murder," said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, who has represented defendants in military cases.
Turley said the prison sentence was in line with most civilian manslaughter cases in the United States, although he is not convinced that the accident should have resulted in any charges. "The core of the case remains an allegation of reckless driving," he said. "It appears exceptionally bad judgment was made on the spur of the moment."
Turley noted that a Navy submarine commander received only a letter of reprimand for rapidly surfacing beneath a Japanese fishing vessel and smashing apart the ship. Nine people on the Japanese ship died in the February 2001 incident.
String of tragedies
But Brooks, Caldwell's mother, thinks a seven-year sentence is too lenient. Her middle son is gone before he had a chance to raise his young children or to realize many of his dreams. And Caldwell's death is not the only tragedy her family has had to endure lately.
Just over a year ago, she buried a nephew she loved as a son after he died in a gunfight in Phoenix. On Sunday, the day Nelson's trial started, Nathaniel Caldwell Sr. - Brooks' ex-husband and her son's father - died in a California hospital of undetermined causes, his kidneys having shut down.
"Thank God his Dad did die," Brooks said bitterly after hearing of the verdict and sentence Tuesday. "This would definitely have killed him."