By John Lasker
Spc. Nicholas Bailey, the second and final suspect charged in the 2010 stabbing death of Army paramedic Morganne McBeth, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter March 9 and later that day was sentenced to nine months in military prison and given a bad-conduct discharge.
Bailey, in a court-martial proceeding at Fort Bragg, N.C., admitted his guilt “as part of a plea deal,” a website of News 14 Carolina reported. He had faced a more severe charge of negligent homicide.
McBeth, a popular 19-year-old from Virginia, was in a tent on a military base in Iraq with Bailey and Spc. Tyler Cain when she was stabbed near the heart.
The case was detailed in a Truthdig article posted last Sept. 20. In that article, McBeth family members described the slain paratrooper as a vivacious young woman who loved to leap from military airplanes and who, as a display of patriotism, occasionally decorated her hair with strands of red, white and blue. They strongly criticized the way the Army investigated and prosecuted the case.
Initially, the military did not charge anyone in McBeth’s death, telling the family that she may have accidentally stabbed herself or committed suicide. But the McBeths pressed one of their congressmen to take action, and only then, five months after her death, were the two soldiers arrested and criminally charged—Cain with conspiring to obstruct justice and Bailey, initially, with involuntary manslaughter, which was later increased to negligent homicide.
The criminal charges on which Bailey and Cain were convicted mean the Army officially believed their story that the stabbing was an accident. In one version of events (the defendants changed their story during the investigation) McBeth got too close to Bailey, a military policeman, as he wildly flailed a large knife at a poster pinned to the wall of a tent they were in at Al Asad air base in Iraq in July 2010.
Cain said at his court-martial last April that he, McBeth and Bailey—all part of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team—had been hurling knives at the poster. Initially, Cain told Army investigators that McBeth was wounded as Bailey forcefully withdrew a knife from the poster. Later he changed his story, claiming that McBeth was stabbed when she walked up from behind Bailey as he wildly attacked the poster.
Cain’s sentence: confinement for 45 days and reduction in rank from specialist to private.
Bailey told a military judge that he roared and stabbed the poster in an effort to be funny in front of his two friends. He said he then pulled the poster from the tent wall by using knives and in doing so accidentally stabbed McBeth as she approached.
Many of McBeth’s relatives and friends did not believe the explanations offered by Cain and Bailey.
“We will get justice for you sis one way or another,” Courtland McBeth, writing before Bailey entered his plea, said on a Facebook page dedicated to his sister. “The military is still covering all this up. He [Bailey] needs to have the [murder] charge and not involuntary manslaughter. That’s a lesser charge and I guarantee the military is going do everything it can to make sure he isn’t charged and gets off. Being discharged from the military is not justice.”
Indeed, the evidence suggesting McBeth’s death was no accident is substantial. A medic who rushed her to an emergency room told military investigators that as her life slipped away she told him there had been “a scuffle.” The family, citing autopsy photos, said McBeth had bruises on her wrist (suggesting she had been held down) and cuts on her legs and lip. And the military surgeon who tried to save her life told a courtroom that the fatal wound was much deeper than that of a typical accidental stabbing.
However, immediately before Bailey’s sentencing at Fort Bragg earlier this month, McBeth’s stepmother, Sylvia, chose to take the path of forgiveness. Earlier she had met with the Bailey family, which pleaded with her to ask the judge to be lenient with Spc. Bailey, who faced the possibility of 10 years of confinement. Moved by the family, she told the courtroom, “To watch another family’s life be destroyed—I can’t go on like that.”
“I don’t think he should be punished,” she said of the defendant. “I think he’s been punished enough.” She also urged Bailey, who had expressed remorse, to honor “Morganne every day the rest of his life.”
After Sylvia McBeth testified, she embraced Bailey’s mother in the courtroom, and the two, holding hands, sat side by side.
Pam Baragona of TheTruthHasChanged.com and Project Bravehearts, two soldier advocacy efforts seeking to change the way the military investigates noncombat deaths, told Truthdig that McBeth’s legacy continues because her case may convince the military it can no longer turn a cold shoulder to families that want clear and definitive answers in noncombat killings.
“The Army could have done better for this family, and this is a lesson for them [the Army] because there needs to be changes in the system,” Baragona said.
Bailey’s guilty plea, said Baragona, was a victory for McBeth’s family and friends. She said pressure from independent press articles such as Truthdig’s and from social media influenced the military to offer some justice for the paratrooper. The case was ignored by the major elements of the national press, and the local press near Fort Bragg largely embraced the military’s line on why the killing happened.
“We gave the family a voice,” said Baragona, who closely followed the case from the beginning and offered the McBeth family advice in its dealings with military investigators. “But a lot of military families don’t know who killed their kid, a lot of people.”
Image courtesy friends of Morganne McBeth
Army paramedic Morganne McBeth died under suspicious circumstances in Iraq in 2010.