Austin S. Stockman, discharged from the Army last year after he was caught trying to smuggle a family out of East Germany in a car trunk, was court-martialed for "plainly political" reasons, his lawyer told an Army Court of Military Review yesterday.
Stockman's six-month prison sentence and bad conduct discharge "vindicates East German and Russian national policy," said Capt. Peter Huntsman during the review hearing in a packed, stuffy military courtroom in Northern Virginia. The soldier's admitted violation of Army regulations barring participation in so-called "exfiltration" attempts is irrelevant, Huntsman argued.
The lawyer said Stockman was "obeying a higher code of international law" and "our national policy," which grant people the right to emigrate.
The three-judge panel of Army officers is expected to rule this summer on the case, believed to be the first such court-martial of an American soldier.
Stockman, 23, left his home in rural Harrington, Del., at 4 a.m. yesterday to drive to the hearing at Baileys Crossroads. He clutched a tiny Jawa "Star Wars" doll given him by a sympathetic officer during the hour-long hearing.
"He told me he'd carried this at appeal hearings before and it had brought good luck before," said Stockman. "I hope it works this time."
Stockman is seeking reinstatement in the Army. Before his arrest last April 25, most soldiers caught in smuggling attempts were punished by an Article 15 proceeding that generally involves a reduction in pay or benefits. Another soldier arrested with Stockman was court-martialed later, but received a lighter sentence.
Stockman served more than three months of his six-month sentence in a military prison for his role in a dramatic smuggling attempt for which he and the other soldier, former Pfc. David F. Pierce, were to have been paid.
Their mission was foiled at a Soviet checkpoint after suspicious Russian guards detained the soldiers for 12 hours and arrested a 33-year-old East German doctor, his wife and their 5-year-old son who were hidden in the trunk of Stockman's Volvo. Army officials said they believe the family has been imprisoned in East Germany.
"I did it because I'm an American and I wanted to help people escape Communism," Stockman said yesterday. "I didn't do it for the money."
Whatever Stockman's motive was, Army prosecutor Capt. Gary Hoffman argued that his court-martial and bad conduct discharge were deserved. "At first blush his conduct would appear laudatory . . . but it seriously jeopardized the Occupation forces . . . and could have initiated another Berlin blockade," Hoffman said. International law, he added, "doesn't afford private citizens or soldiers the right to enter another country and violate its immigration laws."
Throughout the hearing the judges peppered the lawyers with questions about Cold War history, international law and Army regulations. Two of the judges suggested that Stockman, a nuclear technician and non-commissioned officer with the Sixth Infantry Brigade, had a special responsibility to follow Army rules as a member of the elite Berlin Brigade.
"Because only elite troops get to go (to Berlin), isn't it especially important that they obey orders?" asked Col. James D. Clause, the senior judge.
"When one is within a walled city, a lot of times other considerations begin to foment in one's mind," Huntsman replied. Stockman, he said, "was perhaps unthinking, perhaps immature, but his was not bad conduct."