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Stewart soldier's murder trial closes in clash over experts

Mar. 27, 2014 - 04:17PM   |  
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FORT STEWART, GA. — The court-martial of an Army soldier charged with killing his pregnant wife for $500,000 in benefit money closed Thursday, with attorneys arguing whether a military judge should accept a lone medical expert’s conclusion that the woman was strangled to death while the official cause of death remains undetermined.

Pvt. Isaac Aguigui, 22, of Cashmere, Wash., faces an automatic life sentence if he’s convicted of murder and causing the death of an unborn child. His wife, 24-year-old Sgt. Deirdre Aguigui, was found dead at their apartment July 17, 2011, on Fort Stewart when she was about seven months pregnant.

Prosecutors had little problem presenting a possible motive. The Army paid Isaac Aguigui $100,000 to cover funeral costs and other expenses after his wife died, and a month later her life insurance policy paid out $400,000. Evidence showed that hours before his wife died, Aguigui sent a text message to a former girlfriend that read: “We’ll have plenty of money. All need is your body whenever I want it.”

But evidence of what specifically killed Deirdre Aguigui proved scant. The military’s autopsy found more than 20 bruises and scrapes on the body including on her head and back, but nothing fatal. Wounds on both wrists appeared to match a pair of handcuffs found on the couple’s bed. But the official cause of death was not determined. The military couldn’t decide whether she had been slain or died from natural causes.

Last year, a Georgia state medical examiner offered a second opinion. By ruling out illnesses, drugs or poisons, allergic reactions and other potential causes — and by noting the wrist wounds and other injuries — Dr. James Downs concluded Deirdre Aguigui was strangled while struggling violently against handcuffs behind her back. He said a certain chokehold taught to Army soldiers could kill while leaving virtually no telltale marks.

“That’s why this is such a great way to kill someone if you want to get away with it,” Army prosecutor Janae Lepir said in her closing argument. “You put this hold on someone and it could leave almost no finding.”

Aguigui didn’t testify during the trial. The defense’s only witness was its medical expert.

Defense lawyers noted in closing arguments that the military medical examiner and three additional specialists who took part in the autopsy were unable to find a decisive cause of death as Downs had. Another medical expert called by the defense said it was more likely Deirdre Aguigui suffered a sudden heart attack, though prosecutors insisted his diagnosis was based on a faulty reading of her medical history.

“All the government has presented here today is one man’s theory that is no more possible than any other possibility that no other doctor could rule out,” said Capt. Scott Noto, one of Aguigui’s Army defense lawyers.

A former Army buddy, Michael Schaefer, testified that a month after his wife’s death, Aguigui gloated that he had handcuffed her during sex and strangled her with a plastic bag over her head. Defense attorneys noted that Schaefer, who had spoken to Army investigators and testified previously at a pre-trial hearing, had never before mentioned a confession.

Aguigui told investigators his wife liked to have her hands bound during sex and that she wore the handcuffs consensually.

The trial judge, Col. Andrew Glass, will decide the verdict. He left the courtroom just before 10 a.m. and gave no indication when he might rule. There is no deadline for his decision.

Aguigui chose not to have a jury of fellow soldiers hear his case, which is optional in military courts. If he’s convicted of murder, the judge will have to decide whether Aguigui’s punishment is life with or without the possibility of parole.

Aguigui already is serving life without parole at a Georgia prison after he pleaded guilty last summer to murder charges in a double-slaying nearly five months after his wife’s death. Former soldier Michael Roark and his girlfriend, Tiffany York, were shot in the head in rural Long County near Fort Stewart. Civilian prosecutors say Aguigui used the money from his wife’s insurance policy to fund an anti-government militia group of disgruntled soldiers and ordered the couple killed to protect the group. Records show he bought at least $30,000 worth of guns and ammunition.

Army prosecutors never mentioned the militia allegations and said Aguigui wanted the insurance money and the weapons to start a private security business.

Defense attorneys noted Aguigui’s other legal troubles during their closing argument. They also said it’s significant that it took two years for the Army to decide to put Aguigui on trial for his wife’s death.

“He had a lot of problems,” Noto said. “But that does not mean on the night of July 17, 2011, that he murdered his wife.”

Prosecutors reminded the judge of Schaefer’s testimony that Aguigui said he would get away with the killing.

“For a long time, it almost seemed like the accused would get away with it,” Lepir said. She asked the judge not to let that happen.

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