Death at Incirlik
The trial of an Air Force wife who killed her husband offers a disturbing glimpse of life on a military outpost.
ON MEMORIAL DAY 2003, MATTHIAS ARNT got together with about a dozen buddies on Incirlik Air Base in Southern Turkey for a celebration. Arnt's best friend, Darrell Simpson, and his wife, Brandi, were hosting a barbecue to mark the return of civilian family members who'd been evacuated from the American-Turkish military base at the start of the Iraq war. Arnt's wife and their 4-month-old daughter were among the recent arrivals, and the couple was looking forward to showing off the baby together at the party. But the Arnts had been fighting over a letter from one of Matthias's old girlfriends, and that evening Matthias showed up alone. At 23, Arnt was an Air Force security officer who was 6'4", 250 pounds, and able to bench-press twice his weight. He was also a habitual binger. During the barbecue he worked through a bottle of rum until he was cursing and stumbling, bumping into people and spilling their drinks. Finally, at about 10:30 p.m., his friends took his car keys, forced him into a cab, and sent him home.
The Simpsons had just settled in to watch a video with their last two guests, George and Aretha Barnes, when the phone rang. It was Arnt's wife, Latasha. She wanted to talk with Aretha, her husband's supervisor. While the phone was being passed, the group heard Latasha yell, "Get out!" In a strained voice, she told Aretha that Matthias was being "loud and disrespectful" and flicking the lights on and off in their sleeping baby's room. "He can't stay here," she said. "I want to hurt him." Barnes, sensing that a difficult evening was about to get worse, asked to speak with Matthias.
"Matthias?" said Barnes, who'd been Arnt's boss for about two months and his friend before that. "Staff Sergeant Arnt? What's going on?" There was no response. Just his slow, heavy breathing.Within 10 minutes the Simpsons and the Barneses were standing in the Arnts' kitchen, trying to absorb the macabre scene: Matthias, near death, was lying on the floor in a pool of blood. His heart stopped 90 minutes later, and his wife was charged with murder.
At Latasha Arnt's trial in a Los Angeles courtroom last summer, her lawyers portrayed her as a battered wife who'd killed her husband in self-defense, fearing for herself and her child. They also tried to show how easily a domestic fight could turn violent in the permissive culture of the Air Force base. Prosecutors sought a conviction of either second-degree murder, with a maximum life sentence, or voluntary manslaughter, with a maximum of 10 years. The Simpsons and the Barneses were called on to defend the character of their friend Matthias, and the life on the base they all shared.
Until recently, there would have been no trial for Latasha's apparent crime. For 50 years, a legal limbo effectively barred both military and civilian courts of the United States from trying either the families of service members or private contractors for actions committed on overseas bases. Host nations routinely waived jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed on U.S. military bases unless one of their own citizens was involvedand Americans like Latasha Arnt walked away.
To close the loophole, four years ago Congress passed the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which for the first time enabled the United States to prosecute serious crimes committed by civilians on foreign military bases. The act has recently been billed as a way to bring private contractors to justice, including those accused of torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But as the law's first test case, the Arnt trial shed a different sort of light on the military. The proceedings offered a rare glimpse of an outpost halfway across the world and the servicemen and women who lived there. As described by the Simpsons, the Barneses, and Latasha Arnt, the base was a place where friends accepted the excessive drinking and violent tendencies of a fellow soldier and sought to protect him. "As somebody once said, the job of the military is to break things and kill people," said Eugene Fidell, an expert in military law who practices in Washington, D.C. "There's a subtext of violence that they do a good job of sublimating. But it's still there."
MATTHIAS ARNT HAD BEEN DARRELL SIMPSON'S SPONSOR when Simpson first arrived at Incirlik, a sort of instant friend. The pair worked security in the same squadron and their lives quickly became intertwined, both on-duty and off. In a folksy, Southern drawl, Simpson testified that his slain buddy was "kind of a teddy bear." George Barnes, a 17-year Air Force veteran who supervises a flight crew, tried to gloss over the effect of Arnt's drinking. "Whenever Sergeant Arnt would have a lot to drink, he would curse more, touch you and hold you and hug you," George Barnes told the court, sitting stiffly and speaking in a clipped monotone. "Not in a violent way. He became more friendly is the way I took it." Simpson, Barnes, and their wives each testified that they had never seen their friend strike anyone.
But on cross-examination, Simpson acknowledged that on an evening not long before Arnt's death, he'd had to stop his friend from going after another soldier at a bar on the base. The altercation started with an argument over something trifling, Simpson said, but though the man kept apologizing, Arnt refused to be mollified. Simpson remembered another night when a drunken Matthias reached forward from the back seat of a car and started hugging him and his wife, who was driving, hard enough to make the car swerve. "Like choking?" federal public defender Guy Iversen asked. "Yes," Simpson replied, adding, "But I don't know if he knew he was doing it." When Darrell asked Arnt to stop before they got pulled over by the police, he shouted, "Fuck the po-lice. I am the po-lice!" drawing out the word into two long syllables.
Brandi remembered the end of a party at Arnt's house shortly before Latasha and the baby arrived in Turkey. She asked Arnt if the baby's room was ready, and he told her it was. She opened the nursery door, saw that the room was a mess, and started teasing him, calling her husband and the Barneses over to have a look. Arnt had been drinking, and he didn't take it well. "He stood over me huffin' and puffin'," Brandi testified. Aretha Barnes told the court that Arnt looked at Brandi in an angry way and said words like "Shit, motherfucker." Once again, Darrell Simpson stepped in, sending his wife out to wait in the car while he helped his friend cool down.
On the evening of the Memorial Day barbecue, Arnt was "tripping over stuff and wasting his drinks," Darrell Simpson testified. "If we was quiet or if someone else was in a conversation, he'd just haul off and curse." Eventually, Brandi Simpson decided to call a cab and send Arnt home. When she told him, Arnt "took his drink and chunked it up against the wall," Darrell Simpson said. George Barnes testified that he grabbed Arnt's car keys and forced him into the cab. As it pulled away, Aretha Barnes recalled, Arnt rolled down his window and yelled his farewell: "Fuck y'all!"
BY THE TIME THE FRIENDS WERE DONE TESTIFYING, Matthias Arnt came off as a drunken brute, despite their best efforts to soften the image. But he didn't seem like a danger to his wife. The defense team had to show that Arnt had threatened Latasha, that she'd had reason to think he'd carry out the threats, and that she hadn't meant to kill him. Latasha was the only witness to the killing, and to make the case for self-defense, her lawyers had to put her on the stand.
Latasha Arnt appeared before the court in a black pantsuit and sandals, her hair in a crimped bob. (Like the Simpsons and the Barneses, she is African-Americanin their circle of friends at Incirlik, only Matthias Arnt was white.) She started crying almost as soon as she sat down.
Latasha said she met and married Matthias four years ago when both were stationed at a North Dakota Air Force base. He was 19; she was 20 and working as a cook. A short time later, she discovered that her husband had been seeing another woman. She said Matthias also started getting physical with her in ways she didn't like. He'd smack her bottom too hard or give her bear hugs that felt like head locks. He was nearly a foot taller than she was, and when they fought he'd loom over her, panting and glaring. Once, she said, he got into an argument with one of her girlfriends and threw a punch, leaving a fist-shaped hole in the wall behind the woman's head. Even so, Latasha denied feeling worried about her own safety.
In September 2001, Matthias and Latasha were assigned to Incirlik. He went on security detail and she answered phones at the fitness center. Latasha soon intercepted a letter from a former girlfriend of Matthias's, in which his ex said she was pregnant with his child and asked for money. Latasha threatened to leave, but decided against it, she said, after Matthias promised to tell her whenever he heard from a former girlfriend. In mid-2002, Latasha became pregnant. Later that year, she withdrew from military service and flew to her husband's home in Pennsylvania for the birth.
The night after returning to Turkey with their baby, Ashton, in May 2003, Latasha found suggestive photos and a recent love letter from another old girlfriend of her husband's. They were sent, according to the note, at his request. When Latasha confronted Matthias, he denied asking for them. "I called him a liar and it pissed him off," Latasha testified. "He pushed me." She threw a water bottle at him. He wrestled her to the ground and choked her, she said, easing off only after she scratched him on the face. He apologized and they made an uneasy truce.
The following night was the Simpsons' barbecue and, when Matthias came home drunk, Latasha told him that she and the baby were leaving. "He said he would kill me before I left with the baby," Latasha told the court, dabbing her face with a tissue. Matthias looked at her, she continued, in a way she had never seen. For the first time, she felt scared. "I just wanted him to leave," she testified. She called the Simpsons.
Matthias grabbed the phone from her, cursed and dropped it, and they got into a struggle over a cast-iron candlestick. She struck him with it twice in the head, and he crouched and got ready to swing. She ran to the kitchen. "I, um, I, um," she paused on the witness stand and sniffled. "I picked up a knife from a knife rack on the counter. I just thought if he sees I'm serious he'll leave. When I turned around he was right in front of me." Matthias crouched down and drew back as if to throw a punch. It was then, Latasha said, that "he was stabbed."
"Do you remember stabbing him?" asked Iversen, the public defender.The defense tried to back up Latasha's account with testimony from a social psychologist who specializes in family violence. She said that, like many battered women, Latasha had justified her husband's mistreatment by accepting it as normal. But it was hard to see how Latasha qualified as a classic battered woman when she said she hadn't been scared. By her account, her sole injury during the fight that led up to Arnt's death was a sore finger. There was only one other time in their relationship that she said he'd hurt herwhen he pushed her down in the fifth month of her pregnancy. Fearing a miscarriage, she went on bed rest until the danger passed.
THE PROSECUTION'S EXPERT WITNESSES poked holes in Latasha's story. If her husband was really attacking her, why didn't she suffer a single bruise? A post-mortem toxicology report showed Matthias Arnt's blood alcohol at .26, the equivalent of about 15 mixed drinks, according to Aaron Jacobs, a forensic toxicologist. If you threw a ball to someone that drunk, Jacobs said, he probably wouldn't be able to catch it. How much threat could a man in that state really pose? (On cross-examination, Jacobs acknowledged that given his size, Arnt could have absorbed that much alcohol and still have thrown a punch.)
Then there was the trajectory of the knife. Latasha Arnt said she held the knife underhanded, but the forensic report suggested a downward motion that would have required an overhand grip. On its way to the heart, the knife severed a rib, a cut that required a great deal of force. Using large video screens placed at either end of the jury box, the prosecutors repeatedly showed an animated simulation of a knife slicing into a human chest. They also projected oversized autopsy photographs of Matthias's punctured heart and the cuts on his face.
Latasha Arnt stared at the floor or closed her eyes to avoid those images, and it was easy to feel sorry for her. She had no criminal record. She'd cried when Matthias's autopsy was discussed. But on cross-examination, she turned sullen. Her grudging responses contrasted with the candor of Arnt's friends. The prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Jerry Behnke, began by asking Latasha about the letters Matthias had received from various women during their marriage, projecting the writing onto the video screens. He asked Latasha if she was upset when she found the letter the night after she returned to Turkey. "A little angry," she said. "Mostly disappointed." What about the following night, when Matthias came home drunk from the Simpsons' barbecue? "I was a little mad," she repeated. "I was extremely disappointed."
The lines sounded canned, and Latasha made that worse by repeating them again and again. In the jury room, Debora Phillips, one of five women on the panel, mocked the rote responses. Whenever the jury reached an impasse in their discussion, she recalled after the trial, "I'd say, well, I'm a little angry, but mostly disappointed."
THE SIMPSONS AND THE BARNESES returned to the courtroom for closing arguments, taking their seatsas several of the jurors notedon the prosecution's side of the room. Behnke didn't acknowledge them directly. But he told the jury that Matthias Arnt was like "a lot of other young, twentysomething people, hanging out, having a good time." He wound up his case by projecting the image of Matthias's sliced rib and emphasizing the force behind the fatal blow.
Closing for the defense, Guy Iversen called Matthias an "emasculated warrior" who went after his wife because she shamed him by calling his boss. "You fat bitch," he said, repeating Arnt's words twice to remind the jurors of his anger. Iversen argued that the cut through Matthias's rib could have occurred when the drunk man lunged forward. "Who intends to kill somebody," he asked, "and then calls four people to come over and watch it?"
A day and a half into deliberations, the jury sent a note to the judge, Percy Anderson. They were irreconcilably divided, they said. Some believed Latasha had committed murder, some thought she was guilty of manslaughter, and some thought she'd killed her husband in self-defense. It took four days and five hung jury notes before Anderson declared a mistrial. The final vote was 7 for acquittal, 5 for voluntary manslaughter. The prosecutors quickly said they would try the case again.
Waiting for the retrial, Latasha Arnt is living with her grandmother in Riverside County and can leave only to go to church and to her job as a clerk at a sporting goods store. She is spending time with her daughter, who is now nearly two. The Simpsons and the Barneses have returned to their military assignments. They will be back for the retrial this fall....