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No court-martial for man suspected in spy plane fire

Pentagon officials said Thursday they have decided not to court-martial a civilian contract employee from Las Vegas who had been restricted to an air base in Iraq since November when Air Force investigators suspected him of setting fire to a Predator unmanned spy plane.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates “decided to withhold authority to initiate court-martial charges” against Justin M. Price, a Pentagon spokesman wrote in an e-mail Thursday in response to questions asked by the Review-Journal on Wednesday.

“The decision means that the commander will not initiate court-martial charges against Mr. Price and Mr. Price will be returned to the United States,” said the spokesman, Air Force Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder.

Price’s wife, Calene, was stunned with joy to learn that her husband will be coming home.

“Oh my. Oh my. That’s great. That’s awesome,” she said, reacting to Ryder’s comments that were read to her in a telephone call.

She said she had talked to her husband earlier Thursday but he spoke as if he was unaware of Gates’ decision.

“He said it was a good day. I’m so excited,” she said.

Price, a 29-year-old former Air Force staff sergeant, had been working in Iraq since Sept. 14 as a civilian performing mechanical support services on remotely piloted Predator planes for Battlespace Flight Services, a Las Vegas-based company.

With a general court-martial imminent, Price’s attorneys filed a petition Jan. 16 seeking his release through a writ of habeas corpus from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. They argued that his constitutional rights would be violated if the Air Force followed through with what would have been the first court-martial of a U.S. citizen under a 2006 amendment to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

One of his attorneys, Michael Navarre, said Monday that by proceeding with a trial by court-martial, the Air Force would deprive his client, “a full-fledged civilian,” of rights to have a jury of his peers and the chance to make a direct appeal to any court if he was convicted.

According to the petition, Air Force prosecutors were considering charges against Price likely to include arson and reckless endangerment. No motive was given for his alleged actions.

Price and three other Battlespace workers were performing maintenance Nov. 17 on a Predator at Ali Air Base, Iraq, when “a small fire began under the Predator,” the petition states. “The fire was quickly extinguished but not before an indeterminate amount of damage was caused to the exterior of the Predator.”

An investigation into the incident followed and on Nov. 21, Price was “restricted to the confines of Ali Base,” the petition says.

It was unclear Thursday if Price would face any charges in the U.S. legal system upon his return and Navarre couldn’t be reached late Thursday in Washington, D.C.

But in answering the Review-Journal’s query, Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, said Gates’ decision on Jan. 15, “the day prior to the petition being filed, negates the necessity for court action as requested in the petition.”

Ryder said a commander asked the Department of Justice to review the case and determine if the 2006 amendment to the military justice code pertaining to civilians involved in overseas “contingency operations” applied.

On Dec. 19, the Justice Department notified the Department of Defense “that the matter was declined because, as of that date, sufficient evidence was not developed to prosecute this matter in federal district court for arson or damage to aircraft, where federal law requires that it be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the subject of the investigation maliciously or intentionally damaged the aircraft.”

Asked why charges had not been filed against Price during the two-month span he was confined, Ryder wrote that Price “has been restricted to the military installation where he lives and works and where the incident took place and the investigation was being conducted.”

“He was not held in jail or confinement,” Ryder said in his e-mail Thursday, deferring questions about the investigation to the U.S. Air Forces Central Command.

Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said he couldn’t comment on the case. However, he said, “It is clear that American civilians who are working as contractors in Iraq, if they are accused of wrongdoing, there still needs to be due process where they have the presumption of innocence but also have accountability.

“They can’t be in some no-man’s land where they have no accountability because that invites all kinds of abuse,” Lichtenstein said.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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