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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Soldier Sentenced to 9 Years

For MTGarner closing his eyes as the nine-year sentence is announced Tuesday.
KHABAROVSK -- A U.S. serviceman was sentenced to nine years in a maximum-security prison Tuesday for killing the common-law husband of his wife's aunt in a property dispute.

Khabarovsk's Industrialny District Count found Christopher Garner, 30, guilty of murder in the 2006 strangling death of Alexander Kaminsky, who had shared an apartment with the aunt of Garner's wife, Svetlana.

Garner, an active duty U.S. Army technology specialist who had served in Iraq and Kuwait, closed his eyes inside his courtroom cage as the sentence was announced.

The court found that Garner murdered Kaminsky, who was 56, in a dispute over who would inherit the apartment following the aunt's death, then put the pensioner's body in a bag and dumped it 400 kilometers away.

Garner's lawyers say he acted in self-defense after Kaminsky attacked him and his wife and that the couple hid the body because they were afraid of unfair treatment by Russian police.

Viktor Kobzar, a lawyer for Garner, called the verdict unjust and said he was planning to appeal. "I am determined to prove that Garner is not guilty of murder," Kobzar said. "He was protecting his life and that of his wife."

Garner's path to prison began in early September 2006, when he and his wife traveled to Khabarovsk for the funeral of Svetlana Garner's aunt. The aunt had bequeathed the apartment to her niece. Kaminsky had lived with the aunt for several years but had no legal right to it.

On Sept. 6, 2006, Garner and his wife entered the apartment, and a heated dispute broke out. Garner told the court last week that he unintentionally killed Kaminsky after the pensioner attacked the couple with various weapons, including an ax, while shouting, "I'll kill you."

The serviceman said he did not understand at the time why Kaminsky was attacking them, learning only two days later that he had wanted to inherit the apartment -- a one-room, first-floor flat in a dilapidated Soviet-era housing block located in an outlying area of Khabarovsk.

"The apartment had practically no value for us," Garner said. The couple also own a house in California.

In Tuesday's reading of the verdict, the court rejected certain claims by the defense, such as the presence of an ax in the apartment and injuries that Kaminsky inflicted on Svetlana Garner.

Police had previously confirmed that the ax was in the apartment, and defense lawyers had presented medical evidence that Svetlana Garner had choke marks on her neck and bruises on her arms, head and breasts.

After the fight, Garner and his wife placed Kaminsky's body in a bag and dumped it in the village of Solnechny, several hours by car northeast of Khabarovsk.

Svetlana Garner, who has previously worked in Russian law enforcement, testified in April that she had persuaded her husband not to turn himself in.

"If they had found out he was an American, they would have put him behind bars," she said. "And we have three children."

After hiding the body, the couple fled to Moscow to consult with U.S. Embassy officials before turning themselves in to police.

Garner was detained by Moscow police Sept. 9, 2006 and later transferred to a detention facility in Khabarovsk. Svetlana Garner has not been charged with any crime.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy declined to comment about the case Tuesday.

Tuesday's verdict took four hours to read, and it was to be read again Wednesday in English. Garner's lawyers have filed complaints that investigators did not properly inform him in English about his detention during the early stages of the investigation.

U.S. Air Force Captain Stephen Wall served as an official U.S. government observer at the trial. He said he was not authorized to comment on the verdict.

Prosecutors had initially asked for an 11-year sentence, while Garner's lawyers had unsuccessfully tried to get the charges reduced to manslaughter, which carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison.

Staff Writer Alexander Osipovich contributed to this report from Moscow.