NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — A member of an elite group of U.S. Marines has been convicted of involuntary manslaughter and related charges for his role in the hazing death of a U.S. Green Beret while the men served in Africa, the U.S. Navy said in a news release Friday.
But Gunnery Sgt. Mario Madera-Rodriguez was found not guilty of felony murder. He still faces a maximum possible sentence of 27.5 years in prison as well as a reduction in rank and a dishonorable discharge.
A jury of U.S. Navy sailors and Marines returned its verdict late Thursday at a Navy base in Norfolk, Virginia, following a weeks-long trial that pulled back the curtain on alleged misconduct in America’s special operations community.
Madera-Rodriguez belongs to a special operations group in the Marines known as the Raiders. Prosecutor's said he, another Raider and two Navy SEALs conspired to humiliate Army Green Beret Logan Melgar in 2017.
The men were angry over perceived slights during their time together in the country of Mali, prosecutors said. In particular, some were upset that they missed a party at the French embassy in the capital city of Bamako because Melgar and the others got separated in traffic.
Their plan was to break into Melgar's room, tie him up and choke him into unconsciousness while filming their prank on a phone, prosecutors said. Melgar died from strangulation.
A defense attorney for Madera-Rodriguez had argued that he played a minor role in the hazing and should not be found guilty of murder and other crimes.
The attorney said Madera-Rodriguez never touched Melgar until he tried to help revive him. He said the Marine's role was only to break down Melgar's door with a sledge hammer, play some music and bring in Malian guards who were part of the joke.
Madera-Rodriguez's attorneys also said military prosecutors misapplied the law when it came to the murder charge. They said he can only be found guilty of felony murder if he’s found guilty of burglary, a charge related to the accusation that the men broke into Melgar’s room. They said the burglary charge depends on the alleged crime happening at night, which they said it no longer was by the time of the hazing.
“You don’t have night time, you don’t have burglary,” Marine Lt. Col. Timothy Kuhn argued on behalf of Madera-Rodriguez. “You don’t have burglary, you don’t have felony murder.”
Prosecutors argued that Madera-Rodriguez was culpable because he chose to partake in the hazing, despite the known risks of placing someone in a chokehold.
Madera-Rodriguez is the last of the four servicemembers to face a court-martial. He also was the only one to plead not guilty.
SEAL Tony DeDolph, who had applied the chokehold, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter earlier this year and received a 10-year prison sentence. His attorney said he planned to appeal the punishment.
Adam Matthews, the other SEAL, and Marine Kevin Maxwell Jr., made plea deals and were sentenced to shorter terms in military prison.
Charging documents don’t state why the service members were in Mali. But U.S. Special Forces have been in Africa to support and train local troops in their fight against extremists.