By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former Marine corporal was convicted on Wednesday of lying to military investigators about an accidental 2008 shooting in Iraq that partially blinded a Navy corpsman.
A federal jury in New York rendered a split verdict, finding Wilfredo Santiago guilty of one count of making false statements but acquitting him of a second.
The unusual case wound its way from a U.S. base in Iraq to a civilian courtroom in Manhattan more than six years after the shooting, following a series of bureaucratic delays within the military that drew scathing criticism from the trial judge, Colleen McMahon.
Prosecutors in New York secured an indictment in 2013, just 10 days before the five-year statute of limitations was set to expire and years after Santiago left the Marines.
But as a result of the military's delays, which McMahon called a deliberate effort by Marine lawyers to avoid prosecuting an embarrassing case, the lone witness to the shooting, an Iraqi translator known as “Hollywood,” could no longer be found.
His disappearance led McMahon to throw out an assault charge against Santiago in December, leaving him charged solely with lying to investigators about his involvement. The injured corpsman, Michael Carpeso, cannot recall many details about the shooting.
The federal case was brought under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which permits the Justice Department to charge American contractors or other civilians who commit crimes at overseas military bases.
It appears to be the first time civilian prosecutors have charged a former serviceman under the law with a crime that occurred while he was still active.
“The biggest injustice in this case was bringing it in the first place,” said Philip Weinstein, one of Santiago’s lawyers, after the verdict. “This happened six-and-a-half years ago.”
Santiago, Carpeso and Hollywood were inside a trailer on Jan. 26, 2008, when Santiago's gun went off, sending a bullet into Carpeso's temple.
Prosecutors accused Santiago of telling investigators on two occasions that he only heard a gunshot before later admitting his gun fired the shot.
His defense lawyers argued that the statements were not false and that he was in shock. They also said the initial investigator, who spoke with Santiago the day after the shooting, failed to press him for additional detail.
Santiago was acquitted of lying during the first meeting but convicted in connection with a second interview.
He faces a maximum of five years in prison at his October sentencing, although a lesser sentence appears likely.
McMahon has made little secret of her distaste for the case, sharply rebuking the Marines for failing to court-martial Santiago while he remained under military jurisdiction.
“It is obvious that they did not do what had to be done in order to court-martial Santiago because they did not want to,” she wrote in a caustic opinion in December.
In a statement on Monday, a Marine spokesman said the case “was an anomaly and does not reflect the current practice of law within the Marine Corps."
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Dan Grebler)