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Stephen J. Lee, Forum Communications Co., Published December 01 2010

Jury finds master sgt. not guilty in suicide case

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE – After two hours of deliberation Tuesday afternoon, the jury in the special court-martial of Master Sgt. Lisa Mashburn declared her not guilty of dereliction of duty.

“I’m ecstatic. I’m happy,” said Mashburn after exchanging hugs and some tears with her mother, step-father, friends and colleagues in the courtroom after the two-day trial.

Air Force prosecutors had charged her with negligence after the investigation of the Aug. 6 suicide of Airman Cory McCord revealed lax security measures in the Base Defense Operations Center where Mashburn was a flight chief.

Maj. Blake Williams, lead prosecutor for the Air Force, gave reporters only a brief comment.

“The process worked, and justice was done,” he said.

Guy Womack, the retired Marine lieutenant colonel from Houston who defended Mashburn, said afterward: “This proves the military justice system works. The Air Force did everything right by bringing this to trial.”

He said Mashburn had turned down a non-judicial punishment in the matter because she didn’t trust she would get a fair hearing and demanded a court-martial.

This case, of a supervisor getting blamed for events leading to the suicide of an airman, is unique, Womack said.

“I’ve never seen this kind of case in my 30 years,” Womack said after the trial. He said he wasn’t sure why the Air Force brought the case against Mashburn alone.

Both prosecution and defense witnesses testified that official procedures for keeping security doors closed, visitors escorted and logged into the operations center, and guns not officially secure by regulation were widely disregarded for years.

The Base Defense Operations Center, or B-DOC, is supposed to be tightly controlled and contains the base’s law enforcement and military security police operations, all alarms and police dispatch, as well as an unused jail cell.

Mashburn was assistant flight chief for the Alpha Flight, or the regular day shift, and often was in charge during those shifts.

On the day McCord killed himself, she had been ordered by a superior to check on another airman in the base medical center. While there she spotted McCord leaving, thought he had something to do with the airman being ill, and called back to B-DOC to order airmen there to detain McCord when he showed up.

That was done, but McCord escaped custody, grabbed a handgun in the supposedly secure area behind the B-DOC control desk and shot himself in the head. Mashburn had returned to the building about the time of the shooting and was there as McCord was “gasping” in his dying moments, according to court testimony.

Mashburn was the only female flight chief among eight flight chiefs, who are master sergeants in charge of the B-DOC during any given shift. And she was the least experienced, having begun in April, Womack said.

“If you say that she did something wrong, then all her fellow flight sergeants are guilty of doing the exact same thing. They should be sitting here as well.”

Stephen J. Lee is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald