View Full Version : Murdered Marine’s family, friends testify in sailor’s sentencing

10-26-06, 01:31 PM
October 26, 2006
Murdered Marine’s family, friends testify in sailor’s sentencing

By William H. McMichael
Staff writer

NORFOLK NAVAL STATION, Va. — He was a Marine’s Marine; a parent’s pride and joy; a wife’s love; and the father of a son he never saw.

Friends and family alike sang the praises of Cpl. Justin L. Huff in a Norfolk Naval Station courtroom Wednesday for the benefit of a nine-member jury that must decide whether his admitted killer gets life in prison with parole or without.

Engineman 3rd Class Cooper Jackson pleaded guilty Monday to premeditated murder, impersonating a Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent, kidnapping and obstruction of justice. Jackson, 22, of Boones Mill, Va., avoids the death penalty, the court-martial convening authority’s original recommendation, because of a pretrial agreement that became valid once trial judge Capt. Daniel O’Toole accepted his pleas.

Prosecutors claimed Jackson killed Huff in a twisted, fictitious rape revenge plot involving a woman Jackson had met over the telephone.

Wednesday’s hearing opened with prosecutors playing an eerie video recording from Jan. 13, when a shackled Jackson slowly led NCIS agents through the woods in rural Currituck County, N.C. As they crunched through leaves and gravel, Jackson, in a deep, calm voice, described how he slit the handcuffed Huff’s throat before leading the agents to the spot where he later buried the Marine.

The hearing ended just past 6:30 p.m. following hours of heart-wrenching testimony from Marine buddies, Huff’s best friend growing up, his parents and his wife, Rebecca. The accolades seemed the same no matter who spoke: Huff, 23, was a great kid.

“That’s my brother Jake,” said Matthew Eggert of Carmel, Ind., referring to Huff’s lifelong nickname as he nodded at an enlarged photo of Huff on a nearby easel. “He was solid as a rock. You could always depend on him, no matter what the situation.”

“Top 10 percent,” said Joseph Salinas, a retired staff sergeant and maintenance chief for whom Huff worked. “First one in, last one out.”

“He had a smile I couldn’t forget,” said Cpl. Brandon Richards of Camp Pendleton, Calif., a diesel truck mechanic like Huff. “He would go around and help Marines no one wanted to talk to.”

“He would always be there for you,” said Sgt. Anthony Zigler, who became friends with Huff at the Navy and Marine Corps Intelligence Training Center at Dam Neck Annex, where both Marines were studying to become intelligence specialists.

But the warm memories were tempered as each described the shattering impact of Huff’s murder.

“My grandson has been robbed of a father, of a parent,” said his mother, Theresa Huff, of Carmel, a suburb of Indianapolis. Someday, she said, young Justin — born in June, exactly five months after his father died — will ask, “‘What happened to my dad?’” she said. “And we’re gonna have to say, ‘Your daddy was kidnapped and killed in the U.S. after serving two tours of duty in Iraq — by a fellow soldier.’”

Rebecca Huff admitted entertaining suicidal thoughts. “Then I looked at my son’s face,” she said. “And I knew my husband wouldn’t want me to do that.” But her outlook on life, she said, has dimmed considerably.

“I can’t think about the future,” she said.

As each witness spoke, Jackson sat perfectly upright at the defense table, his hands folded, eyes straight ahead, never appearing to even flinch. When spoken to, his voice remained calm and collected.

The defense asked no questions of friends and family and was reduced to acknowledging every detail of the crime. They tried to convince the nine jurors — four officers, five enlisted sailors — that although Jackson had a tough childhood, the act was simply out of character and that, perhaps 20 years down the road, he might have learned his lesson and earn consideration for parole.

“It was a monstrous act,” said Jackson’s civilian attorney, Don Marcari. “We’re trying to show you that he is not a monstrous person.”

Huff’s character witnesses might beg to differ. Nearly all expressed a deep sense of anger over how Huff was targeted and killed — an act that had its genesis in a pathetic lie by a lonely woman that sent Jackson on a search for an assailant who didn’t even exist.

At a pretrial hearing in June, a North Carolina woman who called herself “Samantha” said that in 2005, she began a phone relationship with Jackson, according to a report in The Virginian-Pilot newspaper. Ashley Elrod of Kill Devil Hills said she had often randomly called military men because of her low self-esteem and need for conversation, and kept up a phone relationship with Jackson for months.

On the morning of Dec. 4, 2005, she told Jackson that she’d been raped the previous night by some “military members,” Jackson testified Monday. The rape was a complete fabrication. But Jackson, concerned for her safety, decided to start looking for suspects and, soon, bought a pistol and a pair of handcuffs.

In court Monday, Jackson said he’d seen Huff on base at Dam Neck. He called “Samantha” to ask if she thought someone named Huff was involved. She initially denied Huff was a suspect but then said Huff had helped hold her down during the alleged rape, Marcari told reporters after Monday’s session.

Jackson subsequently called Huff, claimed he was a an NCIS agent looking into the rape of a woman and, two days later, met Huff outside his barracks. Jackson used the guise to place handcuffs on the Marine and get him into a truck in the early morning hours of Jan. 2 — when he took him to North Carolina and killed him, Jackson said in court Monday.

Jackson said he hadn’t planned to kill Huff when they left Virginia Beach — he said he wanted “more information” about the alleged rape. Ultimately, he said, he killed Huff not out of anger over the fabricated rape but over his concern that morning that Huff could later testify that Jackson had impersonated an NCIS agent and kidnapped him.

“I’d broken several laws, and I had a missing Marine with me,” Jackson told O’Toole. “Quite frankly, I was scared of the consequences of what would happen, of being caught ... more so than I was of the consequences of taking his life.”

But he didn’t make up his mind, he testified, until he had the Marine face down on the ground. Jackson said he had his knee on Huff’s back, immobilizing him. He’d brought a Glock .40-caliber pistol and a knife, but had holstered the gun.

“I had the handcuff keys in one hand and my knife in the other hand, trying to decide if I would let him go or if I would take his life,” Jackson said. “I didn’t make the ultimate decision until after the knife was drawn. In my mind, I guess they symbolized my choice to let him go ... or not let him go.”

Jackson then slit Huff’s throat on one side, then the other, he told O’Toole, “so he wouldn’t suffer as much – and he would die faster.”

According to Marcari, Jackson said a prayer over Huff’s body after he later returned to the scene to bury him.

Huff was reported missing from classes Jan. 2. An investigation led agents to Jackson. Nearly two weeks later, Jackson led the NCIS agents to Huff’s stabbed, burned and buried body.

Huff was permanently assigned to Brigade Service Support Group 1, 1st Marine Logistics Group, I Marine Expeditionary Force. He had deployed twice in support of operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom and had been awarded the Combat Action Ribbon, Iraq Campaign Medal and the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal.

The court-martial’s sentencing phase continues Thursday. Jackson remains in custody at the Navy Brig at Norfolk Naval Station.