- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — A military judge yesterday found a Marine Corps swim instructor not guilty of negligent homicide in the drowning of a recruit last year.

Staff Sgt. Nadya Lopez had been accused of failing to recognize or ignoring signs that Pvt. Jason Tharp, 19, was too tired or incapable of continuing before he drowned during training in a pool on Feb. 8, 2005.

The judge, Maj. Mark Griffith, acquitted Sgt. Lopez in the nonjury court-martial 40 minutes after defense attorneys rested without calling any witnesses. They contended prosecutors simply failed to prove their case.

“Sadly, Marines do die in training,” Lt. Col. Scott Jack told the judge in the defense’s closing arguments. He added that Sgt. Lopez “did nothing wrong. She was a professional water combat survival instructor.”

Pvt. Tharp’s mother, Linda, cried as the verdict was read and told the judge, “I hope you see Jason every time you turn around and hear him screaming.”

If convicted, Sgt. Lopez could have faced a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and confinement for three years.

Several Marines testified earlier that Pvt. Tharp, of Sutton, W.Va., did not want to go into the pool and yelled to get out during a survival floating exercise.

Pvt. Tharp was apparently unhappy as a Marine and had written home several times in the weeks before his death that he wanted to be discharged.

In closing arguments, prosecutor Capt. Doug Hatch told the judge that Sgt. Lopez was negligent for not getting Pvt. Tharp out of the water.

The government did not contend Sgt. Lopez was a bad swim instructor, Capt. Hatch said, but “she was negligent on this one day. She failed. She failed her fellow instructors in the pool, she failed the Marine Corps and she failed Jason Tharp.”

Earlier, Lance Cpl. Bradley Kilgore testified that Pvt. Tharp clearly did not want to go into the water. “He was kind of making a scene. It was hard not to notice,” Cpl. Kilgore said.

As Pvt. Tharp continued to yell, the sergeant in charge of the pool, Sgt. Anthony Davis, said he told Sgt. Lopez to take him out of the water.

“I said, ‘Get him out of the pool. … He just quit. He doesn’t want to do it,’” Sgt. Davis testified.

Sgt. Davis said he saw Pvt. Tharp’s head go under the water but that Sgt. Lopez was always close by. He added that as Sgt. Lopez helped Pvt. Tharp to the side of the pool, she asked Sgt. Davis, “Does he look pale to you?”

Sgt. Davis said they noticed Pvt. Tharp had a weak pulse and they began trying to resuscitate him. The recruit died a short time later.

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