VICENZA, Italy -- A senior noncommissioned officer accused of pointing a pistol at one soldier, calling another fat and improperly touching a third's hair was acquitted of all related charges at her court-martial Wednesday.
Sgt. 1st Class Jessica Barboza was found not guilty of dereliction of duty, maltreatment and disrespecting an NCO by a panel of nine male officers and senior NCOs. At least six of them had to agree to acquit.
"I'm relieved," said Barboza, 35, of the 2nd NATO Signal Battalion in Naples. "I'm just grateful to the jury members."
Criminal charges were brought against Barboza after she declined to accept nonjudicial punishment, following a command investigation into complaints about her more than a year ago.
"You won't see these crimes on 'Law and Order,' " prosecutor Capt. Mike Gerrity conceded in his closing argument. "But this is the military. Sergeant 1st Class Barboza failed to put her soldiers' needs above her own."
Testimony against her included that of two soldiers who said she'd pointed a 9 mm pistol at one of them during weapons training, which Barboza said wasn't true. Another soldier said Barboza humiliated her by repeatedly calling her fat, while an African-American staff sergeant said Barboza had touched her hair without permission and then called it "nasty" when rebuked.
Prosecutors also said that Barboza had referred to female African-American soldiers as "negritas," suggesting that Barboza's comments and actions were racially motivated. Barboza testified that she did use the word negrita but that it was a neutral or even affectionate word meaning "little black girl" in her native Mexican-American, southern California culture.
She did touch the staff sergeant's hair, she testified, but only because "I honestly thought there was a piece of paper in her hair."
And she did call the soldier -- a specialist who had difficulties with her weight -- fat, she said. "My intention was to motivate her and also let her know I was concerned," she said.
The most serious charge was dereliction of duty for failing to maintain weapon safety by pointing her pistol at a staff sergeant during weapons training.
Barboza testified that she had pointed the weapon at a poster on the wall.
Asked by her lawyer why the staff sergeant had testified she aimed at his face, she replied that it was "mostly out of spite."
She said he was angry that she'd let other soldiers go on temporary duty assignments instead of him and that she'd told him to stop spending so much time with the soldier who complained about Barboza calling her fat.
Her lawyer suggested that the other soldier who said she'd pointed her pistol at the staff sergeant may have misperceived it.
"Do you have any misgivings? Do you have any concerns?" Davis Younts, one of Barboza's lawyers said to the jury in his closing argument. "She's a soldier who has dedicated her life to the Army. I submit to you gentlemen, you have enough information to conclude she has outstanding military character, and that alone is enough to find her not guilty."
Barboza said after the verdict that she'd refused the nonjudicial punishment and took a chance on a worse outcome at court-martial because it would have ruined her career.
"This was a learning experience," she said. "My gung-ho-ness -- I've always been like that. But this has taught me to be more sensitive."