Jury acquits Navy SEAL in murder case
Ronald J. Gasper, second from left, leaves the Virginia Beach courthouse a free man, accompanied by his mother, Sandra Gasper, a supporter and attorney James O. Broccoletti. VICKI CRONIS PHOTOS/THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT
By JON FRANK, The Virginian-Pilot
© April 6, 2006
VIRGINIA BEACH — The Navy SEAL who shot and killed a fellow commando in 2004 after a night of heavy drinking at Shore Drive bars was acquitted Wednesday by a jury that determined he acted in self-defense.
Ronald J. Gasper, 31, embraced his defense attorneys in the courtroom after Circuit Judge Stephen C. Mahan adjourned the trial.
The jury deliberated for three hours before clearing Gasper of second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and a weapons violation in the death of Bradley Jondahl, 24, on July 31, 2004.
The verdict came on the trial’s eighth day.
Gasper’s family, friends and supporters, including several SEALs, gasped with relief as the not-guilty verdicts were read shortly before noon. On the other side of the courtroom, Jondahl’s family from South Dakota wept.
“We were hurt a year and one-half ago,” said Jondahl’s father, Rodney, outside the courtroom. “And we got hurt again today.”
Outside the courthouse, Gasper walked arm in arm with his parents, Ronald D. and Sandra Gasper of Spencer, Ohio. The SEAL described his reaction to the verdict as “complete elation.”
Gasper, a member of SEAL Team 6, said he would savor the rest of the day, his first away from the case in nearly two years.
“I am going to spend it with my family and friends and my 3-year-old daughter,” Gasper said. He would not comment on whether his career as a SEAL is over.
Gasper still faces an $11 million wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Bradley Jondahl’s parents, pictured above, right, after the verdict. Jondahl’s father, Rodney Jondahl, said of Gasper, “It is not over for him.”
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A spokesman for the SEALs said Gasper’s future with the elite group is currently “under review and has yet to be determined.”
However, Gasper’s “command will request reinstatement of his security clearance to support future duty assignments,” said the spokesman, Jeffrey Bender of the Navy Special Warfare Command in San Diego. Bender said the Navy has no plans to pursue additional charges against Gasper.
Gasper’s lead attorney, James O. Broccoletti of Norfolk, said he doubted Gasper could continue working at such a secretive position after so much publicity. “But that is just an opinion,” he said.
Gasper’s sensitive military job was a key reason the trial was so unusual.
Because of national security concerns, the judge ordered that no member of the military be identified by last name. Instead, lawyers and court officers used the witnesses’ first names and last initials.
Also, the judge ordered that military personnel could not be photographed from the neck up. He allowed cameras in the courtroom to photograph anything or anyone else.
The trial delved into Jondahl’s death and into the well-publicized SEAL creed that requires commandos to leave no man behind.
“The SEAL creed – that is what this case is about,” prosecutor Thomas Murphy said in his closing arguments.
More than 10 SEALs testified – some for Gasper, others for Jondahl.
They revealed a split in the SEAL community that developed after SEAL Team 6 was created and became separated from the other East Coast SEAL teams at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base.
One SEAL testified that the Dam Neck SEALs are better equipped and better trained and have become standoffish toward the SEALs at Little Creek.
Jondahl was a member of a Little Creek SEAL team when he died from a gunshot wound to the abdomen.
There was never any doubt how he received the wound. Gasper admitted to police that he shot Jondahl because he “was acting … up.”
The question for the jury was: Did Gasper have a reasonable fear for his life when he fired his Sig Sauer 9 mm gun at point-blank range?
In testimony, Gasper said he invited Jondahl to his house on Hinsdale Street because Jondahl was drunk and needed help getting home safely.
“That is just what we do,” Gasper testified. “If you are sober, even if you are not,” SEALs helps each other.
But once home, Gasper claimed, Jondahl – who was 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds – began acting aggressively, punching him and shadow-boxing. Eventually, Gasper persuaded Jondahl to leave.
Moments later, he said, Jondahl broke through the front door and continued to physically assault Gasper. He gripped the much smaller Gasper in a choke-hold that caused the SEAL Team 6 member to defecate in his pants.
Gasper said he broke free before losing consciousness, got a gun from a bedroom and tried to get Jondahl to leave.
But Gasper said Jondahl continued to pursue him. After backing into the garage, Gasper said, he fired a warning shot just before the two commandos began to struggle over the gun. “Then the gun went off,” Gasper testified.
Broccoletti said he believed the case turned on several facts that pointed to Gasper’s innocence.
Broccoletti said those included the location where the fatal shot was fired, which proved that Gasper retreated into the garage until he was cornered; and the defecation, which showed the force that Jo ndahl used in his attack on Gasper.
“They lead to only one conclusion,” Broccoletti said. “He fired in self-defense.”
Last week, Mahan threw out a charge of first-degree murder, ruling that there was no evidence of premeditation.
Prosecutors maintained that Gasper should not have introduced a handgun into what was essentially “a wrestling match.”
But Broccoletti produced several SEALs who testified Jondahl had a history of violence when drunk. On more than one occasion, they testified, Jondahl had to be pulled off other SEALs during fights.
The Jondahl family vowed Wednesday that they will not stop seeking justice. In January, they filed an $11 million wrongful-death lawsuit in Circuit Court against Gasper.
Jondahl’s father, Rodney Jondahl, said of Gasper, “It is not over for him. He is going to pay in the end for what has happened and for what he has done.”
Rodney Jondahl said he held no bitterness toward the Navy.
“Brad loved the Navy,” he said. “He was serving his country.”