The news that an Air Force appeals court has overturned the death sentence of a U.S. airman convicted of killing a young couple on Robins Air Force Base nearly a decade ago dealt a bitter blow to their families.
I cant even tell you how devastating it was, Jim Bielenberg said of the 3-2 decision.
His 24-year-old daughter, Jamie Schliepsiek, and her husband, Senior Airman Andy Schliepsiek, 25, were stabbed to death July 5, 2004, by Senior Airman Andrew Witt. Their friend, Jason King, who was then a staff sergeant, survived.
Bielenberg and Dave Schliepsiek, the father Andy Schliepsiek, have been to every court hearing -- including the October hearing in Washington, D.C., before the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals that resulted in Fridays ruling.
We dont miss anything, Bielenberg said by telephone Tuesday. Somebody has to look out for Andy and Jamie.
Schliepsiek said he was in shock after the decision to overturn Witts death sentence, but he wasnt surprised.
I dont know if that makes sense, he said. But in the frustrations of the process, I wasnt surprised. The process is so cumbersome.
I was disappointed, but Im not ever going to give in, he said. The kids deserve justice.
The court found that defense attorneys for Witt failed to present critical mitigating evidence during his 2005 court-martial, the Associated Press reported. The court also said Witts lawyers ignored evidence that a head injury Witt suffered in a motorcycle crash may have affected his behavior, and that the lawyers failed to interview a sheriffs deputy who said Witt broke down sobbing with remorse during a pretrial hearing.
Bielenberg questioned whether the judges who sided with the defense are opposed to the death penalty in general. Of 88 claims raised by the defense, the death sentence was set aside based on three, Bielenberg noted. He said he thought the prosecution had done a solid job defending against all those claims.
Schliepsiek also applauded the prosecuting attorneys who he said have worked tirelessly. He noted the government process resulted in the death-row sentence and it should be carried out.
We dont get it, he said.
Bielenberg said, This thing is so overwhelmingly a death-penalty case, how anyone can overturn that is beyond us.
The judges ruled that Witt must be resentenced, to either death or life in prison. The decision could be appealed to a higher military court. Bielenberg said prosecuting attorneys have assured the families that an appeal will be filed.
In an emailed statement Tuesday, Robins Air Force Base spokesman David Donato said, We are aware of the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals opinion to set aside the sentencing of Witt and are waiting for the full appellate process to take its course.
Witts military court-martial that resulted in the premeditated murder convictions, which the military appeals court upheld, was held at the Bibb County Courthouse because a large enough courtroom wasnt available on base.
According to testimony, after Kings wife and child had gone to bed after a Fourth of July barbecue, Jamie Schliepsiek revealed to her husband and King that Witt had tried to kiss her less than 48 hours earlier. Angered, Andy Schliepsiek and King began calling Witt repeatedly on a cellphone. They threatened to beat him up and to report him to his commanding officer.
Witt changed into a camouflage battle dress uniform, took a 6-inch combat knife, drove from his off-base home to the area on base where the Schliepsieks and Kings lived, spied on them from nearby bushes and then brutally attacked them about 4 a.m.
I cannot believe in the U.S. military, an airman can do this to three human beings, said Bielenberg, who noted Witts 17-page confession that detailed how his daughter and son-in-law were slain. The couple were high school sweethearts in Peoria, Ill. They were married in June 2002 at First Federation Church in Peoria, the same church where they were buried together. Her cremated ashes were placed in an urn in his arms in his casket.
Bielenberg said theres never closure for the families.
Its very frustrating as a parent, he said.
Dave Schliepsiek, who is 66, said, Im convinced its not going to be over in my lifetime.
Staff writer Wayne Crenshaw contributed to this report. To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.