By Eric M. Johnson
TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier who pleaded guilty in the shooting deaths of five fellow servicemen at a military counseling center in Iraq faced a court-martial on Monday in which a judge's sentence will hinge greatly upon whether he finds premeditation.
Army Sergeant John Russell pleaded guilty last month to killing two medical staff officers and three soldiers at Camp Liberty, adjacent to the Baghdad airport, in a 2009 shooting the military has said could have been triggered by combat stress.
Russell, who was attached to the 54th Engineer Battalion based in Bamberg, Germany, struck a plea deal to avoid the death penalty in a case that marked one of the worst episodes of soldier-on-soldier violence in the Iraq war.
The court-martial before a military judge at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state will determine whether Russell acted on impulse, as his defense attorneys argue, or with malice of forethought, as alleged by military prosecutors.
He faces up to life in confinement without the possibility of parole, forfeiture of pay and a dishonorable discharge. At issue in the court martial is whether he "had the ability to premeditate his intention to kill," the judge, Colonel David Conn, said on Monday.
Russell's state of mind has been the focus of legal proceedings over the past year at Lewis-McChord. Defense lawyers said Russell suffered a host of mental ailments after several combat tours and was suicidal before the attack.
POST TRAUMATIC STRESS
Prosecutors said Russell, upset with a healthcare worker, stole a Ford SUV, loaded one 30-round magazine into an M16-A2 rifle, and drove 40 minutes to the stress clinic area.
There, he smoked a cigarette, removed identification tags and the gun's optic, and slipped into the clinic through the back entrance to commit the "five cold-blooded murders."
"He knew everyone in that clinic was unarmed, helpless, and defenseless," an Army prosecutor said during pre-trial hearings, according to court documents obtained by Reuters.
An independent forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Sadoff, concluded that Russell suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and psychosis at the time of the shootings. Sadoff suggested Russell was provoked to violence by maltreatment at the hands of mental health personnel at Camp Liberty.
"My plan was to kill myself," Russell said during his plea hearing. "I wanted the pain to stop."
Conn ruled on Monday that Sadoff, who relied on another doctor's findings that Russell had "brain abnormalities" in areas that govern behavior and emotion, would not testify. Defense attorneys will argue that brain trauma inhibited Russell's judgment.
The other doctor, University of Pennsylvania psychiatry professor Ruben Gur, testified that two scans taken of Russell's brain at Lewis-McChord well after the shootings showed that regions of his brain key to regulating behavior had "significant abnormalities in brain structure and function."
Gur compared Russell's tests with those of 41 other males to show he was an outlier. An Army prosecutor countered by saying the group's average age was much younger than that of Russell, who is 48 and was on medication at the time.
"The analysis you do is just statistics," said Captain Durwood Johnson, an Army prosecutor.
Conn said afterward that scans done prior to those tests, closer to the time of the attack, did not show the same abnormalities and that he would have to take into consideration that certain conclusions drawn by Gur were "certainly not shared by others."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Doina Chiacu and Dan Grebler)