• U.S.

The Law: Murder in Legal Limbo

4 minute read

If the first astronaut on Mars took that one giant step and then brained his partner with a big red rock, what court could try him? Who could prosecute the hijacker of a spaceship bound for Alpha Centauri? Under current laws of jurisdiction, earthbound courts might be forced to ignore such crimes of the future. Still, new ground is being broken. The case most often cited by jurists trying the first extraterrestrial crime may well be a murder that occurred this summer on a remote Arctic ice island now floating 310 miles from the North Pole.

The strange case of U.S. v. Escamilla began July 16 on Fletcher’s Ice Island, which the U.S. Air Force named T3. In carrying out meteorological and oceanographic experiments on T3, a joint Government-industry team of 19 technicians had endured months of loneliness and Arctic temperatures as low as —60° F. While colleagues partied in a nearby shelter, Electronic Technician Mario Escamilla sat in his insulated trailer-style living module and guarded a 15-gallon jug of homemade raisin wine. When a reveler came by to claim a share, Escamilla brandished a loaded .30-.30 rifle and chased the man away.

Just One Catch. A few minutes later, Bennie Lightsy entered the module to reason with Escamilla. Lightsy, a meteorologist who headed the T-3 operation, was an old friend. But Escamilla continued to shout and wave his rifle; outside, Richard Scattolini was walking toward the shelter. A few feet from the door, Scattolini heard a rifle shot. He rushed in and found Lightsy lying on the floor with a bullet in his chest. Within half an hour, Lightsy was dead of massive hemorrhages.

The Navy sent in investigators, then flew Mario Escamilla to Thule AFB in Greenland, and on to Washington. The pudgy, bespectacled Mexican American from Santa Barbara, Calif., freely admitted that he had fired the rifle. There was no place another-assailant could have hidden in the 8-ft. by 32-ft. trailer. The prosecution had a very strong case—with one catch. Though an American flag has flown on T-3 for nearly 20 years, the four-mile by seven mile ice mass does not belong to the U.S. When the State Department refused to accept Admiral Peary’s annexation of the North Pole in 1909, it endorsed the view that no nation can claim sovereignty over frozen Arctic waters. Legally, Escamilla had killed Lightsy in a limbo as remote as outer space.

What Is a Vessel? Without a shadow of precedent to go by, the Justice Department defined the floating island as “a vessel on the high seas,” and set out to prosecute Escamilla under maritime provisions of the U.S. Criminal Code. Legal experts were dubious. Richard Baxter, a professor of international law at Harvard, argued that the ice island’s definition is irrelevant. According to Baxter, the U.S. has jurisdiction because the case involved its citizens working for its Government. Canada, which keeps a jealous eye on Arctic waters, entered a formal diplomatic “reservation” informing the U.S. that it would not consider itself bound by the decision in this case. “If Canada decides to claim jurisdiction on an extension of its territorial waters,” said a State Department lawyer, “we could have a mess.” Then there were the Danes. Since Escamilla, en route back to the States, had first touched any sovereign nation’s territory at Thule in Danish Greenland, it was suggested that Denmark might have the right to try him under its status of-forces agreement with the U.S.

While international lawyers had their field day, Escamilla’s case was brought before a federal grand jury at Norfolk under the venue established when he landed at Dulles Airport. Last week, after a U.S. magistrate had overruled the defense’s first challenge to the Government’s jurisdiction, the grand jury indicted the belligerent wine drinker on a charge of murder in the second degree. There is much more to be heard. If Escamilla is convicted, his case could reach the Supreme Court or even the World Court at The Hague.

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