NEW YORK — A former Marine corporal was convicted Wednesday of making false statements about the accidental shooting of a fellow U.S. serviceman at a trial that occurred only after a judge criticized the government for using the civil courts to resolve an “internal military matter.”
Wilfredo Santiago was convicted by a federal court jury in Manhattan on one count but was exonerated on another false statements count. Sentencing was set for Oct. 9, when he could face up to five years in prison.
Both charges stemmed from the January 2008 accidental shooting of a Navy medic serving in the same fighting unit at Camp Echo in Diwaniyah, Iraq. The medic lost an eye but survived.
Defense attorney Annalisa Miron called the conviction “an injustice.”
Prosecutors said Santiago, then 24, lied about his gun going off in the windowless room where five men lived but later told the truth when confronted with the facts investigators had assembled. They said the lies had jeopardized the victim’s benefits, which are less if a serviceman deliberately shoots himself.
Defense lawyers argued to the jury that his words were true and that he was affected by the trauma of shooting his best friend when he was initially interviewed. He had joined the Marines in 2003.
U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon has been critical of the government’s handling of the case, saying its use of the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act was unprecedented. She said the law passed more than a decade ago to permit the prosecution of crimes committed principally by civilian dependents and military contractors had not before resulted in the indictment of a former serviceman for conduct known to military authorities while he could have faced court martial.
“How this court became involved, in 2013, in an internal military matter involving conduct committed in Iraq in 2008, is its own conundrum,” she wrote in a decision last year.
When she tossed out a charge of reckless assault against Santiago in December, she wrote of the case: “It is not a tale that inspires confidence in our criminal justice system.”
In a March letter to the judge, prosecutors wrote that “a communication breakdown within the Marine Corps” prevented a court-martial after Santiago returned to the United States.
Santiago, who the judge has noted had a reputation among his peers for playing with his side-arm weapon, has since been honorably discharged from the service. She said the bungling of the case prevented Santiago from summoning at trial an Iraqi translator who was in the room when the shooting occurred and who had emphatically denied that the defendant was playing with or quick drawing his gun just before it went off. The translator known as “Hollywood,” she said, had disappeared.