Originally created 02/22/06

Court-martial opens in death



PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. - A parade of prosecution witnesses testified Tuesday that Marine recruit Jason Tharp was shouting and seemed frantic in the minutes before he drowned in the pool at the Parris Island Marine Recruit Depot a year ago.

But most of those same witnesses, on cross examination, said they did not see any unsafe training methods used by Marine Staff Sgt. Nadya Lopez, who is charged with negligent homicide in the death of Mr. Tharp, a 19-year-old recruit from Sutton, W.Va.

Mr. Tharp died Feb. 8, 2005, during water survival training during his fifth week of boot camp. Staff Sgt. Lopez was an instructor in the pool.

The court martial, which opened Tuesday, recessed for the day after the prosecution called 10 witnesses.

Most of the testimony centered on the water survival training the day Mr. Tharp died.

"He didn't seem necessarily scared of the water. It seemed like he really wasn't trying," said 1st Lt. Randy Brown, who was the safety officer at the pool the day of Mr. Tharp's death.

Mr. Tharp drowned after practicing an exercise in which recruits blow air into their shirts and use the shirts to float.

Staff Sgt. Daniel Maddix said he tried to work with Mr. Tharp the previous day so the recruit could qualify for the water survival training.

"He seemed uncomfortable in the water," Staff Sgt. Maddix said. He recalled that Mr. Tharp seemed scared as they moved away from the side of the pool.

"At that point he began to scream," Staff Sgt. Maddix said. "It was loud. He was screaming. It was almost at the point I couldn't do anything with him."

But one prosecution witness, Chantell Higgins, who was a captain in the Marines but left the Corps last June, recalled seeing Staff Sgt. Lopez work with Mr. Tharp.

"He was scared, so when she asked him to put his head underwater ... and it struck me he wasn't ready to do that," she testified. But on cross-examination, she said she did not see any unsafe conditions in the pool.

During opening statements, a military prosecutor charged that Staff Sgt. Lopez was just an arm's length from Mr. Tharp when the Marine recruit drowned.

But Staff Sgt. Lopez' defense attorney countered that she "did nothing wrong, and recruit Tharp's death was not her fault."