US soldier goes on trial in slaying of 2 in Iraq

AP News
Posted: Apr 20, 2011 4:37 PM
US soldier goes on trial in slaying of 2 in Iraq

An Army sergeant gunned down his commanding officer and a fellow soldier after they criticized him for a series of battlefield blunders, including making a wrong turn during a patrol in Iraq and later leaving behind a squad member, prosecutors said Wednesday at a court-martial hearing.

Maj. Andy McKee, the lead prosecutor, said Sgt. Joseph Bozicevich of Minneapolis screamed "I'm going to kill you" as he sprayed 27 bullets in September 2008 at a patrol base south of Baghdad, fatally striking his squad leader and another soldier. Bozicevich could face the death penalty if convicted of killing the squad leader, Staff Sgt. Darris Dawson, and Sgt. Wesley Durbin.

"He was upset," McKee told a panel of 12 jurors at a courtroom on the sprawling grounds of Fort Stewart, where Bozicevich was based. "He was upset about the potential consequences."

Bozicevich's defense team, which has declined to discuss defense strategy, postponed giving an opening statement until later in the trial, which is expected to last several months. Bozicevich, 41, has pleaded not guilty, and his defense attorney, Charles Gittins, has said his client opened fire to protect himself.

Scant details had emerged about what led to the shooting before Wednesday's hearing. Witnesses who testified said the shooting spree erupted after Bozicevich's superiors decided to sanction him after a disastrous patrol from a base about 30 miles south of Baghdad.

Spc. Michael Duncan, a medic who was on the patrol, said Bozicevich was leading several soldiers on the start of a 3-mile route when gunfire crackled nearby. The squad took cover, and when Bozicevich tried to regroup, he led the team down the wrong path. Later, after gathering at an Iraqi police station, Bozicevich mistakenly left a soldier behind when they decided to return to base, he said.

A few hours later, witnesses said, they heard two separate bursts of gunfire from the base. Some said they feared it was an ambush. Duncan grabbed a vest, helmet, pistol and kit and hustled outside, where he saw Dawson bleeding from six gun shots. Other witnesses said they saw Bozicevich chasing Dawson, who was shot several times in the back.

"He shot me. Boz shot me," the medic said Dawson, a 24-year-old from Pensacola, told him. Dawson died later after being rushed to a field hospital in Baghdad.

The medic then rushed to a nearby security building, where he found Durbin lying in a pool of blood from seven gunshot wounds, including one that struck his neck.

"All you could smell was blood, gun smoke and a little bit of acid" from a car battery hit by a stray bullet, Duncan said.

As a crowd of worried soldiers gathered, Duncan said, he tried to resuscitate the 26-year-old soldier from Dallas even though he had likely died seconds after the shooting.

"No one wants to see the doc quit, I pretty much did it so everyone could have some hope," Duncan said. "But I didn't."

Gittins focused much of the day challenging the memory of witnesses, which he said could have faded in the aftermath of the chaotic evening. The defense attorney also suggested that his client was "calm" before the shootings and that he "seemed completely normal ... he wasn't agitated, angry or upset." But he did little else to outline his defense strategy.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, used the opportunity to launch a pre-emptive strike. McKee told the panel of 12 jurors, a mix of soldiers and officers from the Georgia fort, that Bozicevich planned the assault and then urged soldiers after he was caught to shoot him.

"You may hear evidence about the accused's mental health. But we're confident when you hear about what the accused did before, during and after the killings that you'll return a verdict of guilty," said McKee.

Duncan, a 21-year-old who has served several tours overseas since joining the Army in 2007, said he's still shaken by the shootings. He said he clearly remembers what he was doing when the bullets peeled out _ trying to unlock an achievement in the video game "Guitar Hero" _ and that he'll never forget how Bozicevich looked as he was being restrained by three soldiers on the blood-soaked ground.

He was laughing, Duncan said.

"He was arrogant," the medic added. "Almost triumphant."