WASHINGTON — A military appeals court was asked today to overturn the death sentence of a Marine in a racially tinged case. Accused of killing his platoon commander and the commander's wife, he faces the first military execution in 29 years.
Lance Cpl. Ronnie Curtis, who is black, contends racial taunts drove him to kill Lt. James Lotz and Lotz's wife, Joan, on April 13, 1987.
Curtis, who confessed to a state trooper and to investigators, was sentenced to death after being convicted of the slayings in a military trial. He is being held at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan.
His case is seen by attorneys on both sides as a test of the military death penalty. Among the many intervenors is the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which said his 1987 court-martial was tainted by racial bias.
Three civilian judges of the U.S. Court of Military Appeals were asked by Curtis' attorneys during oral arguments today to overturn his sentence on the ground that the military death penalty mechanism is unconstitutional.
Curtis was sentenced by a nine-member military panel, even though all states with death penalties require 12-member sentencing juries in capital cases.
A military panel found Curtis, then 21, guilty of fatally stabbing Lotz, a Scranton, Pa., native who was his section officer at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Curtis also was found guilty of stabbing Lotz's wife and sexually abusing her as she lay dying in her home.
Military attorneys appointed for Curtis said in appeal papers that Lotz antagonized Curtis by imitating what he believed were black mannerisms and by calling Curtis "Be-bop" and "Shoo-be-do."
"The relation between Pvt. Curtis and Lt. Lotz took on a dynamic like that which existed between a slave and his master," the legal arm of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People said in an amicus brief.