QUANTICO, Va. ― A Marine charged with murder in a New Year’s Day shooting incident at the Washington, D.C., Marine barracks may have been unaware his gun was loaded when he allegedly pointed it at a fellow Marine and pulled the trigger.
Lance Cpl. Riley S. Kuznia, 20, of Karlstad, Minnesota, was on duty when he was shot and killed, and was pronounced dead at 5:59 a.m. on Jan. 1.
The defense for Lance Cpl. Andrew Johnson, a Marine assigned to the D.C. barracks’ Guard Company, argued at an Article 32 military hearing Thursday that there was no intent by Johnson to pull the trigger and that he believed he had cleared his weapon.
Johnson was hit with preferred charges on June 14 that include murder, negligent homicide, involuntary manslaughter and dereliction of duty for failing to abide by the D.C. barracks’ firearms policy. Recommendations from Wednesday’s military hearing will determine if Johnson will face a court-martial for all, some or none of the charges.
The trial counsel led by Marine Capt. Brendan J. McKenna argued during Thursday’s hearing that Johnson did not properly follow D.C. barracks policy for unloading his pistol. Marines assigned to the Guard Company are required to clear their weapons under supervision and at a proper clearing barrel.
Instead, Johnson allegedly attempted to unload his weapon near an elevator room at the D.C. barracks, McKenna said during the hearing.
The government’s case against Johnson contends that he racked back the slide of his pistol to clear any chambered round, but a magazine was still inserted in the gun.
If a magazine with ammo is still inserted in a pistol when someone attempts to clear a chambered round, the pistol will simply chamber a new round when the slide moves forward. The magazine must be removed from the pistol before clearing.
McKenna presented at the hearing that three witnesses saw a jovial Johnson then allegedly point his pistol at Kuznia’s head and pull the trigger. After Kuznia was shot, both the defense and government said Johnson was distraught and called out Kuznia’s name.
An emotional Johnson, at the start of Thursday’s hearing, choked up saying that Kuznia was his friend and that he would “do nothing to hurt him." Johnson also said that his “heart was broken," and that he misses his friend “dearly.”
The defense, led by Marine Maj. Joshua L. Ockert, also argued that a witness who saw the shooting said that he never saw Johnson take the safety off his pistol, and that the 9 mm Beretta sometimes comes off of safe.
The government alleged on Thursday that Johnson had showed an escalation of misconduct and disregard for the D.C. barracks’ firearms procedures and that he had in the past pointed an unloaded weapon at another person and pulled the trigger.
Charge sheets, obtained through a government records request, detailed that on one occasion Johnson pulled his pistol from his holster “while dancing,” and on another occasion he chambered a round and said, “Oh, you’re going to a party. F*ck this shit," or a similar phrase.
McKenna presented video evidence pulled from Johnson’s cellphone that they allegedly captured both these incidents.
“Today, has been a very emotional day for our family," Markelle Kuznia, Riley Kuznia’s mother, told Marine Corps Times in a Facebook message. “We learned many details about Riley’s death, along with disturbing information about the Marine that killed Riley."
“This was both devastating and heartbreaking to hear," she said. “We continue to pray for justice and to keep Riley’s memory alive!”
Col. Donald J. Tomich, the commander of the D.C. Marine barracks, told Marine Corps Times in an emailed statement that the “Marine Barracks Washington remains committed to supporting the deceased Marine’s family as the legal process will undoubtedly reopen some wounds.”
“Time does not ease the pain of their loss or make dealing with this any easier for them, and our thoughts and prayers are with them,” Tomich said.
Maj. John C. Johnson, the preliminary hearing officer from Thursday’s Article 32, will make a recommendation to Tomich regarding the appropriate form of adjudication and charges, if any.
Johnson said Thursday that the commanding officer is not bound by his recommendation.
There was no live witness testimony during Thursday’s hearing.