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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Love, Murder and a Dank One-Room Flat

For MTChristopher Garner, 29, sitting in his Khabarovsk courtroom cage. He says he was defending himself and his wife when he killed Alexander Kaminsky, 60.
KHABAROVSK -- The Pervy district in this Far East town is notorious for its underground pipes constantly bursting, flooding streets and apartment-building basements.

Nonetheless, it was an apartment in a typical, dilapidated housing bloc here -- a one-room, first-floor flat -- that prompted a U.S. serviceman to strangle a man to death and then dump the body 400 kilometers away, prosecutors say.

Christopher Garner, 29, an active duty specialist in the U.S. Army, is now on trial in Khabarovsk's Industrialny District Court, charged with murdering the 53-year-old common-law husband of his wife's aunt in December.

The incident stemmed from a heated dispute over the apartment, which Garner's wife, Svetlana, had recently inherited from her aunt.

Garner's lawyers and family contend that the serviceman was simply defending himself and his wife when Alexander Kaminsky, a pensioner, violently attacked them Sept. 6.

"He is a dedicated father, a loving husband and a caring child," Garner's father, Steven Garner, said Thursday by telephone from Sacramento, California. "We are proud of him for choosing to defend his country and for defending his wife in that apartment."

A month ago, the three judges presiding over the case shot down an appeal filed by Garner's lawyers to reclassify the case as manslaughter due to excessive force. Manslaughter carries a prison term of up to two years, while murder could mean 15.

Garner's lawyers have appealed the ruling with the Khabarovsk Region Court, which has yet to consider the petition.

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

After the bytovukha, the police term for killings that stem from arguments between friends, acquaintances or relatives, Garner and his wife placed Kaminsky's body in a bag and dumped it in the village of Solnechny, which is several hours by car northeast of Khabarovsk.

The couple then fled Khabarovsk for Moscow to consult with U.S. Embassy officials before turning themselves in to police.

Garner was detained by Moscow police Sept. 9 and later transferred to a detention facility in Khabarovsk.

Svetlana Garner has not been charged with any crime and is currently in Sacramento with the couple's three children, Steven Garner said. She could not be reached for comment.

Preliminary court proceedings took place Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, though the formal start of the trial has been delayed. The delay is due, in part, to Garner's lawyers filing complaints with the court that state investigators did not properly inform Garner in English about his detention during the early stages of the investigation.

"It is not Garner's responsibility to ask the investigator to translate a procedural document," Alexei Zavgorodny, one of Garner's two lawyers, said Thursday. "The investigator is required to provide this information in an accessible language."

Irina Byankina, the lead prosecutor in the case, declined to comment.

This weeks proceedings have been relatively uneventful. Byankina and the three judges -- Tatyana Pakulenko, Galina Nikolayeva and Galina Dezhurnaya -- have tried to make it easy for Garner to understand what it going on, repeating words when he does not understand them.

Garner prefers to speak in English through a translator, though he occasionally uses Russian words such as ponyatno and khorosho.

Garner appears to be in decent spirits, periodically managing a smile as he is lead by court marshals into his courtroom cage. He prefers to stand during the proceedings. Sometimes, the judges order him to sit down on the bench in the cage.

Kaminsky's nephew, Sergei Bondarchuk, who is a plaintiff in the case, has even been spotted swapping jokes with Garner's lawyers. But he told The Moscow Times on Wednesday there were holes in Garner's defense.

"If you have killed a man and are scared, you should just call the police," Bondarchuk said. "But for some reason they hid the corpse and left for Moscow."

Steven Garner said he believed the couple tried to hide the body because of "fear of the Russian police system."

Alejandro Vega, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, and Stephen Wall, a captain, are serving as official U.S. government observers at the trial. They were both present at this week's proceedings but declined to comment.

The U.S. Embassy said in an

e-mailed statement Thursday that the embassy and the U.S. Consulate in Vladivostok "have been providing all appropriate consular assistance" to Garner.

Pakulenko, one of the three judges, has set the next trial date for March 28 to give Garner time to familiarize himself with the 22 pages of court documents that have been translated into English and were provided to him Wednesday.

Steven Garner said he remained optimistic that his son would be acquitted and hoped to travel to Russia "to prepare for a homecoming."

"I hope we can travel home together," Steven Garner said. "I know his wife and his sons miss him very much."

Staff Writer Nabi Abdullaev contributed to this report from Moscow.