The military’s highest appeals court on Monday ruled that federal prosecutors did not unfairly sway a panel of officers to harshly sentence Andrew Witt, a senior airman convicted of a double homicide in 2005.
Witt is serving a life sentence in prison without parole in connection with the deaths of Senior Airman Andrew Schliepsiek and his wife, Jamie, and the attempted murder of then-Senior Airman Jason King, at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, in 2004. His appeal aimed to give him hope of someday walking out of prison a free man,
The avionics technician confessed to killing the pair, and to stabbing King, after Andrew confronted Witt on the phone about his attempt to kiss Jamie. They also threatened to report to Witt’s superiors a separate alleged affair with an officer’s wife, according to legal documents.
“After the phone calls, [Witt] changed into his battle dress uniform, drove to [Andrew’s] house where [the Schliepsieks and King] were located, and stabbed all three, making sure not to ‘leave any evidence’ or ‘witnesses,’ ” the appellate court said.
He was initially given the death penalty at his 2005 court-martial but has filed multiple appeals to allege legal misconduct in his bid for a lighter sentence. A military appellate court vacated the ruling in 2016, and returned the case to a lower court.
In 2018, a panel of officer and enlisted members recommended that Witt be: imprisoned without parole; demoted to airman basic — the Air Force’s lowest enlisted rank; dishonorably discharged; and forfeit all pay and allowances. The Air Force’s appellate court upheld the new sentence in 2021.
Nearly two decades after the case began, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces weighed in this week with a 4-1 ruling that the trial was fairly run.
Witt’s legal team had argued that the lawyer representing the government had improperly influenced jury members to issue a harsh sentence by asking how their decision “would reflect on them personally and professionally, and suggested that the members would be responsible for any harm [Witt] committed in the future,” according to a three-judge majority opinion.
Although the government’s lawyer in 2018 pushed the jury to issue a death sentence for the second time in the case, the panel decided not to send Witt to death row and instead chose life in prison without parole, Judge John Sparks wrote in the majority opinion. Their only other option, given the severity of the charges of premeditated murder and attempted premeditated murder, was life in prison with the possibility of parole.
That outcome shows the panel “applied their own critical analysis to this case,” the court said.
“We see no evidence that the trial counsel’s arguments resulted in material prejudice to any of [Witt’s] substantial rights,” the judges wrote.
In a dissenting opinion, Chief Judge Kevin Ohlson said the trial counsel had “irredeemably poisoned the entire sentencing process” and called for a new hearing.
Witt’s legal team did not respond to a request for comment on the ruling on Tuesday.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.