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Hill murder trial begins at Bolling

By C. Todd Lopez

BOLLING AIR FORCE BASE, Washington, D.C. (April 26, 2007) -- The court martial of Airman Calvin Hill, accused of murdering Airman 1st Class Ashley Turner, began in a court room here Wednesday.

Airman Turner died around 11 p.m., Aug. 14, 2005, in a hospital on Naval Air Station Keflavik, Iceland. She had been found earlier in the evening by Staff Sgt. Jerrod Sunderland, bludgeoned and in a pool of her own blood, on the floor of the recreation room of her dormitory.

Airman Hill has been charged with premeditating the death. Both Airman Turner and Airman Hill were assigned to the 56th Rescue Squadron at the time.

Opening statements in the trial were set to begin Wednesday morning, but were bumped to later in the afternoon, after prosecutors asked Judge (Col.) William Burd of the possibility of moving the trial to Iceland.

Prosecutors wanted to be able to call on a witness, Ms. Vannee Youbanphout, a native of Iceland. Youbanphout had been the girlfriend of Airman Hill during his tour in Iceland, but she has refused to come to the United States to testify in the trial. Prosecutors hoped to move the trial to Iceland so as to include her testimony.

Judge Burd adjourned the court until Wednesday afternoon, so prosecutors could inquire about moving the trial overseas. When the court came back in session, around 1 p.m., prosecutors and the defense had come to an agreement that portions of testimony by Youbanphout, from a related Article 32 hearing, could be admitted in lieu of her actually being present in the court room.

Following the announcement of that agreement, Maj. Matthew Stoffel gave the opening statement for the prosecution to a jury of 14 Airmen, both enlisted and officer.

He said that during the coming trial, they would hear testimony that Airman Hill had been under investigation for stealing money from Airman Turner, pulling as much as $2,700 dollars from her accounts through an ATM. He said video recordings taken during the ATM transaction proved it was Airman Hill that had taken money from the account. He also said Airman Hill was facing a court martial related to those crimes, and that Airman Turner would have been a witness.

Major Stoffel told the jury they would hear testimony related to Airman Hill's incarceration in a military prison in Manheim, Germany. There, Major Stoffel said, Airman Hill admitted his crimes, and details of those crimes, to his cellmate. Part of that admission, he said, was that Airman Hill had revealed his motive for the killing -- to keep Airman Turner from testifying against him in the thefts.

Major Stoffel told the jury that all signs of guilt pointed to one person, the accused, Airman Calvin Hill.

Capt. Gwendolyn Beitz gave opening statements for the defense.

The captain said the Naval Criminal Investigative Service had rushed to claim Airman Hill as the perpetrator of the crime -- which she said was tragic. But she also said the service had no initial reason to suspect him for the crime, and that following the arrest, they had embarked on a "quest" to prove themselves right, and had conducted a "sloppy," "stilted" and "blinded" investigation.

The captain also pointed out that Airman Hill's cellmate in Manheim had changed his story several times about Airman Hill's admissions to him, and at one point had admitted that he had lied.

Additionally, the captain said details surrounding what should have been a key piece of evidence, Airman Turner's electronic pass card, helped disprove the government's case. The pass card, much like those used in hotels, is used by Airmen at the Keflavik installation to enter their rooms and recreation area in the dormitory. The captain said time codes generated by Airman Turner's card did not mesh with the facts presented by the government.

Captain Beitz also discussed Airman Turner's boyfriend, Staff Sgt. Ronald Ellis, who was under watch for criminal activities involving illegal drug sales. Sergeant Ellis had involved Airman Turner in some of those same drug related activities, Captain Beitz said. And while he had made a deal with the government for reduced punishment, in exchange for a promise to stay out of further trouble, he continued to be involved in some of those same criminal activities. The captain suggested that a "loud" and public breakup between Sergeant Ellis and Airman Turner, and Airman Turner's knowledge of Sergeant Ellis' continued criminal activities, was enough motive to make Airman Ellis suspect as the killer.

She urged the jury to "listen carefully" to the testimony and to not rush to judgment.

The court martial of Airman Calvin Hill is expected to last several weeks. If convicted of the murder, he could face life in prison or the death penalty.