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Airman sentenced to death by military panel for murder

by Lanorris Askew
78th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- The Airman here who was recently found guilty of two specifications of premeditated murder and one specification of attempted premeditated murder, has been sentenced to death by a military panel.

Senior Airman Andrew Paul Witt, 23, is now the only Airman to sit on death row.

Airman Witt's death sentence is the first Air Force death sentence since the United States vs. Jose Simoy in 1990, which on appeal, the death penalty was set aside and Mr. Simoy is currently serving life in prison.

Airman Witt is guilty of two specifications of premeditated murder in the July 5, 2004, stabbing deaths of Senior Airman Andrew Schliepsiek and his wife, Jamie.

He was also found guilty Oct. 5 of one specification of attempted premeditated murder in the stabbing attack of then-Senior Airman Jason King.

By the nature of the findings, premeditated murder carries a punishment of a mandatory life sentence, but a unanimous vote by the jury sentenced Airman Witt to death, said Col. Jeff Robb, Warner Robins Air Logistics Center staff judge advocate.

Maj. Vance Spath, chief circuit trial counsel with the U.S. Air Force Eastern Judicial Circuit at Bolling Air Force Base, D.C., said this was the first death penalty case he has tried, and it has been an emotional time.

"My team has been away from home for a long time," he said. "We've been working down here for the last few months exclusively, and it's a relief to be finished, a relief to go home, and it feels good to have this case finished for the Air Force."

Major Spath said he believes whatever the jury gave Airman Witt would have been a just sentence, but he believes justice has definitely been served.

Airman Witt will not be executed before the expiration of all appellate avenues, which could take years, Colonel Robb said.

"Once the trial is complete, the center commander (Maj. Gen. Michael A. Collings) will have a chance to take action on the case," he said. "After that action (which is to either approve or disapprove the sentence), the appeals process can begin."

That process begins with an automatic appeal to the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals, a military court. Appeals from there would go to the Court of Appeals for Armed Forces, which is a civilian court. Any further appeals would go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"A review by the Supreme Court is not mandatory," the colonel said. "At the conclusion of all appeals the president of the United States still has a pardoning power."

The sentence followed a week of testimony from family and friends of the victims who urged the all-officer panel to sentence Airman Witt to death. Their statements were followed by pleas from the convicted Airman's family and friends to spare his life.

While the fathers of the victims described the pain they still endure over the loss of their children, the parents of Airman Witt tried to paint a picture of their son that many have not seen.

Melanie Pehling, Airman Witt's mother, said her son is a not an evil person and was a joy to bring up.

"We are asking for mercy because I know what's underneath," she said. "I know he has more to offer than what happened on July 5, 2004."

Terry Witt, Airman Witt's father, described him as loving and compassionate, and said his son taught him the meaning of unconditional love.

After testimony from both sides, Airman Witt took the stand and gave an unsworn statement in which he apologized for his crime.

"To the families, to the Schliepsieks and Bielenbergs, I am so sorry from the bottom of my being," he said as he turned to face the families. "I'm so sorry I took your son and your daughter away from you, and also, to Mr. King, I'm so sorry for hurting you."

The Airman also submitted a written statement where he took responsibility for his actions but asked the jury to spare his life.

"I would like to apologize again to the Schliepsieks, the Bielenbergs, the Kings, my family, and the Air Force for my actions," he wrote. "My life has changed dramatically since that night, and I plan to continue to make changes. I want you to know that I am firmly resolved to lead a productive life in the service of others and will not wander from this path if given the chance. Please allow me to live so that I can do this. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts with you."

The Airman also discussed his Air Force career.

"I regret losing my focus on the Air Force mission -- looking back, I do truly love the Air Force, and I have been proud to wear the uniform," he wrote. "I understand that my actions mean that I will never wear it again once this trial is over, and I am sorry for that as well. I am sorry for the discredit I have brought upon the Air Force and the negative attention I have brought to Robins Air Force Base."

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