LUDOWICI, Ga. - An Army sergeant charged with shooting a teenage girl in the head while another soldier killed her boyfriend outside Fort Stewart two years ago suffers from brain injuries and post-traumatic stress after serving in combat in Afghanistan, the sergeant's defense attorney said Friday.
Sgt. Anthony Peden, 27, faces a possible death sentence if he's convicted of murder in the Dec. 4, 2011, slayings in Long County. Prosecutors say former soldier Michael Roark and his girlfriend, 17-year-old Tiffany York, were shot to protect an anti-government militia group formed by disgruntled soldiers from Fort Stewart in southeast Georgia.
Burt Baxter, an attorney for Peden, told a Superior Court judge Friday that the accused soldier has undergone psychiatric evaluations in preparation for his defense. He said Peden suffered traumatic brain injuries while serving in the Korangol Valley of Afghanistan.
"The treatment that he needs for his post-traumatic stress would be better served in a military prison," said Baxter, who told the judge he's asked the military to reconsider a possible court-martial for Peden.
The Army dropped all military charges related to the slayings last year, leaving it to civilian authorities to prosecute the case.
Peden appeared Friday in Long County Superior Court along with Pvt. Christopher Salmon, 27, who also faces capital murder charges. Two fellow soldiers who have previously pleaded guilty in the case told Judge Robert Russell that Peden and Salmon fired the shots that killed the two victims after luring them into the rural woods not far from the Army post. They said Peden shot the girl in the head, checked her pulse and shot her again while Roark was made to kneel before he was shot twice by Salmon.
One of the defendants who turned against Peden and Salmon was Pvt. Isaac Aguigui. Prosecutors say Aguigui was the leader of a militia group that recruited disgruntled soldiers and discussed plots that included bombing a park fountain in nearby Savannah and poisoning apple crops in Washington state. Authorities say the group stockpiled more than $87,000 worth of guns and bomb components.
Aguigui also faced a possible death sentence before he pleaded guilty to murder charges July 19 and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. Prosecutors say he funded the militia group with more than $500,000 in insurance and benefit payments following the death of his pregnant wife in July 2011. The Army has charged Aguigui with murder in her death and a court-martial scheduled for next year.
Salmon's attorney, Amber Pittman, told the judge Friday that she, too, has asked the Army to renew military charges against Salmon so that if he ends up going to prison "any sentence would be served in the military." She didn't say why Salmon would be better off in a military prison.
Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden said he's also been involved in talks with Army prosecutors, but he plans to prosecute Peden and Salmon regardless of what the military does. Military service members can legally face a court-martial and a civilian trial for the same crime.
"At this point we're ready to proceed with our state prosecution," Durden said.
Salmon and Peden have not yet entered pleas in the case. Peden is scheduled for arraignment March 6, followed by Salmon on April 3.
Baxter said Peden suffered brain injuries from a bullet striking his helmet and from head-rattling roadside bomb blasts during 18 months he served in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007. Military records show Peden returned to Afghanistan for a second tour in 2009.