Courts & Crime

Only airman on military’s death row gets new sentencing hearing

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, in Washington, D.C. McClatchy

A former Georgia-based Air Force enlisted man who killed a married couple will get another chance to escape the death penalty for the murders he committed 12 years ago.

In the latest twist to a violent case that began at Robins Air Force Base, about 90 miles east of Columbus, the nation’s highest military appeals court on Tuesday ordered another sentencing hearing for Andrew Paul Witt.

The new sentencing hearing will effectively be the fourth go-around for Witt, the only airman on the military’s death row in Leavenworth, Kansas. His revived prospects result from a legal error that, while seemingly technical, was also deemed worrisome for the military justice system’s overall reputation.

“A problem of appearances and public confidence is precisely what we have here,” Judge Scott W. Stucky wrote.

In the unanimous ruling, the five-member court concluded that the lower Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals acted improperly with its handling of Witt’s original appeal.

A 12-officer panel first imposed the death penalty in 2005. The Air Force court struck down the sentence in 2013, citing alleged shortcomings with Witt’s legal representation. Four judges recused themselves because they joined the appeals court after the oral argument.

The government then asked for reconsideration. The Air Force court reversed itself in 2014 and upheld Witt’s death sentence, this time with three of the four previously recused judges taking part.

“The participation of disqualified judges in the reconsideration process produced a significant risk of undermining the public’s confidence in the judicial process,” Stucky wrote in the nine-page decision released Tuesday.

Witt’s attorneys declined to comment Wednesday.

A graduate of Wichita State University and Harvard Law School, Stucky himself served as an Air Force judge advocate before joining the all-civilian Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. His decision did not elaborate on the underlying crime, whose essential details Witt does not contest.

In the summer of 2004, Witt was a senior airman stationed at Robins with the 116th Air Control Wing. Raised in an allegedly troubled home, he had also been in a motorcycle accident in early 2014, an event that later led to questions about a possible traumatic brain injury.

Jamie Schliepsiek, the wife of Senior Airman Andrew Schliepsiek, told her husband the night of July 4 that Witt had made a sexual advance toward her. Her husband then placed multiple post-midnight phone calls to Witt, with the two men eventually talking at length.

“At some point during the phone call exchanges, (Witt) changed into his battle dress uniform,” the Air Force appeals court recounted. “He retrieved a knife from his closet, placed the knife in the trunk of his car, and drove onto Robins Air Force Base.”

A third senior airman, Jason King, had joined the Schliepsieks at their home. At about 4 a.m., Witt entered the house and got into a scuffle where he stabbed both men while Jamie Schliepsiek locked herself in a bedroom. A wounded King fled to summon help.

Witt left the house and then returned, breaking through the bedroom door to find Jamie Schliepsiek curled in a fetal position. He stabbed her to death, and then finished off her wounded husband, who had been paralyzed in the initial attack.

“My life has changed dramatically since that night, and I plan to continue to make changes,” Witt told his court-martial panel during his trial in Macon, Georgia. “I want you to know that I am firmly resolved to lead a productive life in the service of others and will not wander from this path if given the chance.”

The new hearing could result in another death sentence, or life terms with or without the possibility of parole. The last U.S. military execution occurred in 1961.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10