Army controls sensitive photos in hearing over troubled platoon
Army prosecutors allege Staff Sgt. David Bram helped organize and carry out an attack on a young soldier who dared to speak out about hashish smoking in his quarters, and that he posed for a photo next to a dead Afghan.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Staff Sgt. David Bram was a squad leader who was supposed to look after some of the soldiers in his southern Afghanistan platoon. Instead, Army prosecutors allege, he helped organize and carry out an attack on a young soldier who dared to speak out about hashish smoking in his quarters.
In a hearing Thursday morning at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, prosecutors also disclosed that a smiling Bram posed for a photo next to a dead Afghan.
Such photos are sensitive evidence in a major U.S. war-crimes investigation of this troubled platoon of Western Washington-based soldiers.
The Army has kept tight control over these photos in hopes of preventing a public release of images that senior leaders fear could stir a backlash against U.S. troops.
On Thursday, rather than bringing the photos of Bram into the courtroom, the hearing was adjourned to allow prosecutors, defense attorneys and an Army investigative officer to view photos in a secure area.
"If you look at this picture, it's clear it's not for official purposes," Capt. Dre Leblanc, an Army prosecutor, said of the photo of Bram after returning from the viewing.
The platoon was part of the 5th (Stryker) Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (since renamed the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division), which served in southern Afghanistan from the summer of 2009 to the summer of 2010. The investigation kicked off in early May after a beaten and bruised Pfc. Justin Stoner, 21, offered additional information about platoon members possibly involved in the killings of unarmed Afghans.
By late summer, investigators had charged five soldiers with involvement in the deaths of three unarmed Afghans. Several soldiers, in sworn statements, have alleged that Staff. Sgt Calvin Gibbs, of Billings, Mont., was ringleader of that group.
Bram and six other soldiers were charged with a range of lesser crimes resulting from the attack on Stoner, illegal possession of human casualty photos and other alleged misconduct.
Thursday's Article 32 hearing will help Army commanders decide whether there is enough evidence to support a court-martial against Bram. The 27-year-old soldier from Vacaville, Calif., faces a prison sentence of up to 11 years and a dishonorable discharge, if convicted on all charges. But unlike the soldiers charged with murder, Bram has not faced pretrial confinement.
The hearing offered contrasting views of Bram.
Sgt. 1st Class Jason Ditmer — who told Bram and other squad leaders about the hash smoking and named Stoner as the informant — said that Bram was a great squad leader who always got the job done. "He was always positive. He was always motivated," Ditmer said.
But the prosecutor, LeBlanc, painted a dark picture of Bram, as a soldier who betrayed the Army's trust by assaulting another young soldier whom he should have protected, and posing with a corpse.
"This is a staff sergeant, a leader who should have been providing an example," LeBlanc said.
In the sworn statements of other soldiers, Bram is portrayed as a key participant in the assault against Stoner, which happened shortly after Ditmer had told squad leaders about the hash smoking.
Bram's alleged to have grabbed Stoner by the neck and shoved him against the wall. Bram then reportedly joined in a group attack that involved kicking and hitting the soldier as he lay on the floor, according to statements by other soldiers.
Stoner, in a sworn statement, also said the soldiers made death threats
After the beating, Stoner left the platoon to seek out assistance from Staff. Sgt. James Compton, who served in another unit involved in base security.
"He was very scared when he came up to me," Compton testified Thursday "He had bruises all the way down his torso."
Near the end of the Thursday hearing, Stoner briefly took the witness stand.
He listened intently as the investigating officer reviewed with him his legal rights. But rather than testify, he invoked his rights to remain silent, and then left the courtroom.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com
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