15:15 hours (3:15 PM local time), mid-July 1976. Back road from Erlangen to the U.S. Army’s Herzo Base, Herzogenaurach, West Germany
Herzo Base map circa 1965
America’s Bicentennial celebration came and went. I was just back from three weeks of stateside leave and working an 8 AM to 8 PM dayshift. I opened the snack bar-bought bag of chow.
“How can you eat with him staring at us,” Murph asked.
It was his third day on the job after MP school and he was seeing his first dead body. Newbie Military Policeman Private First Class Sean Murphy of Massachusetts was not feeling well. Our jeep was parked off the road a few feet from Mr. Herman’s passenger-side windows. We had an eye-level view of him. He was dead, yet his eyes were open.
“Our lunch is two hours cold, and my burger is under cooked. Do you want your fries,” I asked.
“No,” PFC Murphy replied, with a look of disgust on his face.
I was thinking, not being callous. Herman’s tires had left no skid marks. I wondered if he had turned his head to the right in fear or for some other reason.
We had missed lunch at the mess hall (Army dining facility) because of an earlier call and might miss dinner there due to other calls after this one. Because we lived in the barracks, we were issued meal cards and could eat for free in the mess hall. But if we missed meal hours, we either purchased food out of pocket or went hungry.
A blanket – from our emergency aid kit – was draped over the driver’s side windows and part of the front windshield. While several German civilians from houses north across the field had walked over and gathered together across the road from Mr. Herman’s car, the blanket concealed him from prying eyes and unauthorized photography and concealed us from view by spectators.
“You forgot to ask Specialist 5th Class Windham P. Stansfield his M.O.S. and if he has scars or tattoos. Go ask him, but don’t read him his rights because CID already did,” I chided.
“I’m not stupid,” he said, with a hint of anger in his voice.
I replied, “You are new. Never mind. Watch our German friend here. I’ll go ask him myself.”
Stansfield had asked Murphy three times if he would read him his legal rights, aka Miranda warnings, and he had dodged answering. Not bad for a rookie cop.
CID stood for C.I.D, the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division. MPs referred to that august agency and its detective agents as CID, as in Sid Cesar the actor or Cyd Charisse the dancer.
“Hey Sumner. I need you to hold the tape again,” Agent Hawk requested.
“Sure Chief,” I replied.
CID Agents were a 50 / 50 mix of NCOs and Chief Warrant Officers who worked in civilian clothes and were to be called either Chief or sir. They are highly trained. Hawk had been a Special Agent for more than a decade. He was smart, experienced, and informative.
The wind was still, the temperature mild, and the sky was a bit hazy but otherwise clear.
We measured the width of the roadway, edge to edge, and straight through the tightly clustered debris field. The two-way road was not painted with a dividing line. Yet the center of that cluster matched the measured center-point of the roadway. The force of gravity caused broken glass and lightbulb filament dust to drop straight down. It indicated that both cars were several inches across the center of the roadway when they collided head-on. Stansfield’s Plymouth was much heavier than Herman’s Karmann Ghia. The latter was built with its engine in a rear compartment.
Hawk whispered, “If either of them had stayed to the right, Herman there would be awake and far from here.”
I replied, “The tape don’t lie, Chief.”
Then I walked the 50 yards to the German ambulance where Stansfield was receiving first aid.
“What’s your Military Occupational Specialty and do you have any scars or tattoos?”
“35 Delta (D) Meteorological Equipment Repairman, and no and no. Aren’t you going to read me my rights,” Stansfield replied.
“The Chief will. How’s the nose,” I asked.
“Doc here says it is broken. I’ll have two black eyes and probably headaches for a few days.”
“Stay awake tonight. You’ll be okay.”
“As if I could sleep. … Is he really dead,” Stansfield asked. “He looked like he was asleep with his eyes open, but he wasn’t bleeding or breathing.”
Hawk had read him his legal rights, and, while Stansfield declined to answer potentially incriminating questions, he was required to provide administrative information and take a field sobriety test. He refused the latter, so his commander had a duty to revoke his driver’s license.
“You can still take the test,” I added.
He replied, “Are you going to read me my rights?”
Either Stansfield had a short-term memory problem from a concussion, or he was being deliberately uncooperative.
“Stay loose, Soldier.”
I rejoined Murphy. An Army chaplain came. We prayed.
A German doctor closed Herman’s eyes. The swift blow had broken his neck and killed him instantly. While I had seen far worse as a MP patrolling Bavaria, veterans like Stansfield surely had seen the unimaginable in Vietnam. But 27 is too young to die.
And Mr. Herman was the descendant of a famous German 15th century inventor.
I began writing the MP report. Agent Hawk interrupted and we discussed the case. CID was the lead investigative agency in all serious felony cases; as Hawk planned to charge Stansfield, I was duty bound to also charge him with those crimes on the MP report. But we differed over also citing Herman as being ‘at fault’ in the accident. When Murphy and I returned to the MP station, the Desk Sergeant directed me to only list Herman as a victim on the MP report. Yet my sworn statement was mine alone to author and attest to.
Adjudication of the matter would be up to the U.S. Army. As was often their practice, German prosecutors waived their right to primary jurisdiction under the Status of Forces Agreement.
The Commanding General ordered Stansfield to stand trial by General Court Martial. Just after Labor Day, the light-skinned African-American pled “not guilty” to charges of Reckless Driving and Negligent Homicide. If two-thirds of his jury – what our military calls a court martial board or panel – voted to convict, he would face up to six years in a military prison.
All but one of the jurors was white. The foreman was an Army Major and the panel’s junior member was a Staff Sergeant. Hawk was white. I am a fair-skinned 14th generation American.
After the jury was seated, a forensic expert, two German Policemen, the on-scene German doctor, and Agent Hawk testified for the prosecution. Captain Kidd was also to testify. He had a Degree in Science, was purported to be an expert witness, and headed the Army’s Traffic Investigations School in Europe. I had been notified that I was a ‘standby’ witness, so I reviewed the case file the week before the trial to refresh my memory. Murphy was not called.
There was no living eyewitness to the accident, other than the accused.
Captain Kidd was challenged by the defense and disqualified by the trial judge. While he reviewed CID’s report, photographic and forensic evidence, and the accident sketch, he had neither visited the scene nor ever conducted an on-scene traffic accident investigation himself.
The prosecutor’s office called me at the barracks and instructed me to come to the court.
Defense counsel had made a perfunctory objection. The prosecution stated that I was being called as a non-expert yet experienced witness to the accident. The judge ruled that I would be allowed to testify if the prosecutor could first establish my credentials for the court.
I took the stand and was sworn in …
None of us were stupid.
I was the senior MP on duty out of the Erlangen MP Station the day of the accident and fairly well experienced. After two years on the job, it was my sixth traffic fatality case. I had investigated upwards of 250 traffic accidents, a number of DUIs, barroom brawls, domestic disturbances, dozens of simple and aggravated assaults, a couple of suicides, two accidental discharge shootings, a double homicide, property crimes, numerous drug-related offenses, sexual assault, and more. (This was soon after Vietnam. More than 300,000 GIs were stationed in Europe; MPs were usually too busy.) Since joining the Army in early 1974, I had attended college in my off-duty time and had amassed 21 credit hours with a 4.0 G.P.A. And I had completed most of the traffic investigations correspondence course.
“Overruled. The witness may testify,” the judge stated.
Strangely, the prosecutor first cautioned me to limit my testimony to what was in the MP report.
Heads snapped up at the defense table and Stansfield’s lawyer smiled.
The prosecutor selectively walked me through some of my investigation’s findings. He then asked me two questions that he needed answered for the jury’s consideration. They were why he called me to testify when Captain Kidd was disqualified.
“Based upon what you saw at the scene, was Specialist Stansfield’s vehicle across the center-point of the roadway and did his vehicle strike Mr. Herman’s vehicle?”
“Did the left-front-headlight-to-left-front-headlight collision cause the frontal collapse of Mr. Herman’s vehicle, its steering column to be forced backwards and upwards, and its steering wheel to strike Mr. Herman hard on the side of his neck just below his left ear?”
“I’ve no further questions.”
“Cross examination, counselor,” the judge asked.
Stansfield’s lawyer replied, “Yes your honor.”
“Specialist Sumner, have you investigated other accidents on that road?”
The prosecutor objected, “Relevance, your honor? Stansfield is not on trial for other accidents.”
“Counselor,” the judge asked.
Stansfield’s lawyer replied, “Specialist Sumner was allowed to testify as an experienced witness. With the court’s permission, I wish to ask him about it as it pertains to something in his sworn MP investigator’s statement for this accident which is attached as an enclosure to his MP report.”
“Objection overruled,” the judge declared.
“Have you investigated other accidents on that road?”
“When and where on the road did it occur?”
“Back in April and the point-of-impact was approximately at the same place, just over the rise immediately after coming out of the sharp curve.”
“Describe that accident, please.”
“An MP jeep sideswiped a German woman’s car. More specifically, both of their drivers’ side mirrors were across the unmarked center-point of the roadway. That was the point-of-impact. The German Police and I cited both drivers as ‘at fault’ in the accident. There were no injuries.”
“You cited both a fellow Military Policeman and the German woman in that accident?”
“Okay. So why did you not cite Mr. Herman in your MP report as also at fault in the matter before this court?”
“Objection: It is not in Specialist Sumner’s statement or in the MP report.”
“I’ll allow it. Overruled.”
“I was ordered by the MP Desk Sergeant to not cite Mr. Herman as he was a victim because he was dead, and we don’t charge dead Germans.”
“We don’t,” Stansfield’s lawyer asked.
“We do, sir. While the Army does not prosecute foreign nationals for criminal offenses as they are not subject to the UCMJ, we do cite them in the subject/suspect block of MP reports when they are at fault in traffic accidents involving military personnel or Army property.”
“So, you wanted to also cite Mr. Herman as being ‘at fault’ in this accident?”
“Did the German police also cite Mr. Herman in this accident?”
“Did you disagree with the MP Desk Sergeant at the time?”
“Yes sir, respectfully, and then I noted the Army regulation authorizing the citation of foreign nationals for traffic offenses in my sworn statement.”
“Is there anything else that you wish to add to your testimony,” Stansfield’s lawyer asked.
The prosecutor again objected, but again the judge overruled him.
“Yes sir. I also noted in my statement that Agent Hawk determined both vehicles had room to safely pass had either vehicle been to the right in their lane. Because a person had died, the German Police had blood drawn from both drivers. No alcohol was found in Herman’s blood. Stansfield admitted to them he had one beer during lunch, yet his blood-alcohol level was well below the legal limit and he was not charged with Drunk Driving. We determined that neither vehicle was speeding, the roadway’s shoulders were soft, and they had little time to react before the crash. I have often traveled that back road. The curve needs ‘extreme danger’ warning signs. The speed limit needs lowered. And the road needs painted with lane markings.”
“Thank you,” Stansfield’s lawyer said to me.
He then stated, “I have no more questions, your honor.”
“Did the headlight-to-headlight impact cause the frontal collapse of Mr. Herman’s vehicle, its steering column to be forced backwards and upwards, and its steering wheel to strike Mr. Herman on the side of his neck just below his left ear?”
“Yes sir,” I replied.
“I have no further questions,” the prosecutor said.
The judge replied, “The witness is excused.”
“The prosecution rests, your honor.”
The judge then addressed the court martial panel: “We will take a short break and then proceed.”
The visibly angry prosecutor, a Captain, caught up with me in the hallway as I was leaving.
“You blew my case; there is no way they will vote to convict,” he said.
“Sir, I told the whole truth. Regardless of whether they find Stansfield guilty or not guilty, I will sleep soundly tonight,” I replied.
I turned and saw on the wall a painting of Lady Justice with her blindfold firmly in place. I saluted her and walked away.
That back road was later straightened and better marked. It currently forms the northern perimeter road for the Adidas Shoe Headquarters complex.
We cannot know if Mr. Herman was inattentive, looking off to his right, staying well clear of the soft shoulder, and never saw the Plymouth coming. Perhaps he saw the danger, turned his head to look for an escape route, and had no time to maneuver.
Conversely, faint skid marks from two of Stansfield’s tires were left on the road for a short distance leading up to the point-of-impact. It indicated he made a split-second decision to brake but could not stop in time. The jury acquitted Specialist Stansfield.