By Laura L. Myers
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier accused of killing five fellow servicemen at a military combat stress center in Baghdad in 2009 has been ordered to stand trial in a U.S. military court, officials said on Friday.
Sergeant John Russell, who could face the death penalty if convicted, is accused of going on a shooting spree at Camp Liberty, near the Baghdad airport, in an assault the military said at the time could have been triggered by combat stress.
Russell, of the 54th Engineer Battalion based in Bamberg, Germany, faces five charges of premeditated murder, one charge of aggravated assault, and one charge of attempted murder in connection with the May 2009 shootings.
Two of the five people killed in the shooting were medical staff officers at the counseling center for soldiers experiencing combat stress. The others were soldiers.
Russell's civilian defense attorney, James Culp, told Reuters he was disappointed his client could face the death penalty.
Culp wrote in a memo this year his client was "facing death because the Army's mental health system failed him."
Army Colonel James Pohl, who presided over a preliminary hearing in the case last year at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, had called the death penalty an "inappropriate" punishment for Russell because of combat trauma concerns.
Referring Russell's case to court-martial as a capital trial was surprising, according to civilian military defense attorney Dan Conway, who is not involved with the Russell case but has defended soldiers in similar circumstances.
In the days following the shooting, Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the incident highlighted the risks of multiple deployments on soldiers and underlined the need to redouble efforts to deal effectively with combat stress.
WEAPON TAKEN AWAY
Before the shooting, Russell's commander had determined that Russell should have his weapon taken away.
In a statement issued by Joint Base Lewis-McChord, military officials said Russell, 47, had been referred by a General Court Martial Convening Authority for trial.
"As it stands right now, he's fit to stand trial," said Lieutenant Colonel Gary Dangerfield, the base spokesman.
Dangerfield added the decision to refer Russell's case as a capital punishment trial was made because of the severity of what he called "blue-on-blue" killings.
The shooting was among several incidents that have brought attention to the issue of combat-related stress among soldiers.
A recent Army study estimated as many as 20 percent of the more than 2 million U.S. troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan could suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In another case where defense lawyers have cited stress as a factor, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales is accused of killing 16 people, including nine children, in a shooting rampage in Afghanistan in March.
Bales was on his fourth deployment to a war zone in the past 10 years, and his civilian lawyer has said that post-traumatic stress disorder would likely be an element of his defense.
In the Iraq case, Russell was moved from Fort Leavenworth to confinement at Joint Base Lewis-McChord earlier this year, Dangerfield said. Although the court-martial will likely be conducted at the Washington state base, "anything is subject to change," he said.
No trial date has been set for Russell, but Culp expects the trial to begin before the end of the year.
(Writing by Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)