Fort Campbell soldier says murder of fellow soldier was a prank gone wrong

The trial is underway in Dover, Tenn., for the Fort Campbell soldier charged with first-degree murder in the death of a fellow Fort Campbell soldier in 2016.

The victim, Seth Brabant, 24, was found face down and grasping for air by a motorist on a gravel road in eastern Stewart County March 6, 2016. The soldier died three days later at Vanderbilt University Medical Center without ever regaining consciousness.

The Leaf-Chronicle reports Attorney Chase Smith told jurors during Monday’s opening statements that his client, Zachary James-Earl Ponder, tied a shoelace around the neck of Brabant after driving him away from a party in Montgomery County where he had become drunk and belligerent — arguing Ponder’s actions were nothing more than an Ill-conceived prank.

According to The Leaf-Chronicle, Brabant was passed out in Ponder’s back seat when the defendant stepped out of the car for a bit. When Ponder returned, he discovered Brabant had turned blue, causing him to “freak out” and push his fellow soldier from the car and drive away, Smith argued.

Smith told the jury they must conclude if Ponder’s intention was to kill Brabant, and if it was a premeditated act — key elements to a first-degree murder charge.

Assistant District Attorney Dani Bryson said in her opening statements Ponder and Brabant were “friends and brothers in arms,” who had gone through basic training together and were serving at Fort Campbell, according to The Leaf-Chronicle.

Nevertheless, the ADA argued Ponder took a shoelace and wrapped it twice around Barbant’s neck and secured it with a square knot before pushing him from the car, according to The Leaf-Chronicle.

Byrson told jurors the lack of oxygen to Brabant’s brain is what caused him to die after he was removed from life-support at the hospital.

The trial centers on a party where Brabant allegedly became distraught about not being able to contact his estranged wife.

According to The Leaf-Chronicle, a group of soldiers was drinking March 5, 2016, and Brabant became agitated. An altercation broke out and Brabant hit Cody Lancaster, who is since medically retired from the Army, when he stepped between the fighting men. Ponder held Lancaster to the floor to prevent the situation from escalating.

After diffusing the situation, Ponder said he would take Brabant to his wife’s and helped him out of the residence, The Leaf-Chronicle reports Lancaster testified.

The motorist who found Brabant, Gary Smith, discovered Brabant between 8 and 9 a.m., and as he got closer, The Leaf-Chronicle reports he could “hear him laboring to breathe.”

Smith called 911 and rolled over Brabant while talking with the emergency dispatcher. It was then he noticed, what he called a rope around Brabant’s neck.

“I immediately cut it off with my knife,” The Leaf-Chronicle reports Smith said, adding that Brabant could breathe easier but remained unresponsive.

Stewart County EMS responded to the scene, and Brabant was airlifted to Vanderbilt via LifeFlight.

The Leaf-Chronicle reports testimony in the trial continues in Stewart County Circuit Court.

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  • Jim Verchio is a staff writer for Popular Military. As a retired Air Force Public Affairs craftsman, Jim has served at all levels. From staff writer to Editor-In-Chief, he has more than 30 years experience covering military topics in print and broadcast from the CONUS to Afghanistan. He is also a two time recipient of the DoD’s prestigious Thomas Jefferson Award for journalism excellence.

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