‘Fragging' trial gets under way at Bragg

Military prosecutors argued Wednesday the first soldier accusing of killing a direct superior in Iraq — a crime known as “fragging” during the Vietnam War — told other soldiers he hoped his company commander would die in action and he wanted to “burn” him.

New York National Guard Staff Sgt. Alberto Martinez was frustrated with Capt. Phillip Esposito's strict oversight of the supply room where Martinez worked, prosecutor Capt. Evan Seamone told jurors during opening arguments of Martinez's court-martial. Charged with two counts of premeditated murder, Martinez could be sentenced to death if convicted.

Defense attorney Maj. John Gregory countered that Army investigators assumed Martinez was guilty after learning of his feud with Esposito, a by-the-book West Point graduate who took over a relaxed National Guard unit. Because of their prejudice, Gregory said, investigators were “likely to miss important evidence that will be lost forever.”

Martinez, 41, of Troy, N.Y., is accused of planting a anti-personnel mine that detonated June 7, 2005, in a window of the officers' room at Saddam Hussein's Water Palace in Tikrit. The officers died the next day.

Esposito and 1st Lt. Louis Allen, also a National Guard officer in the 42nd Infantry Division, were playing the board game Risk when the mine exploded and sent hundreds of steel balls hurtling, Seamone said. He told jurors that Martinez told another soldier he planned to “frag that (expletive)” before the suspicious blast tore through Esposito's living quarters.

“There was no soldier who voiced as much hatred for Capt. Esposito as Sgt. Martinez,” Seamone said.

But Gregory said investigators found no direct evidence linking Martinez to the blast, including fingerprints or DNA. Initially, investigators thought the explosion was caused by a mortar attack, but changed their minds after one soldier told them that Martinez and Esposito didn't get along, the defense attorney said.

The Army reported hundreds of “fragging” incidents between 1969 and 1971, but only four soldiers have been court-martialed or charged with killing a fellow soldier since the Iraq war began in 2003.