By Eric M. Johnson
TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier who pleaded guilty to killing five fellow servicemen in a shooting spree at a combat stress center in Iraq acted with the tactical precision of a trained soldier as he moved through the clinic, an Army crime scene expert testified on Thursday.
U.S. 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 faces an abbreviated court-martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state where a military judge will determine the level of his guilt. Russell's sentence, determined by the judge, will hinge greatly on whether he acted with premeditation, as prosecutors say, or on impulse, as the defense argues.
On the fourth day of court-martial proceedings, an Army forensic science officer on scene after the attack testified that Russell had acted with the tactical precision of a trained soldier as he moved through the clinic.
In one instance, the expert said, Russell avoided a splotch of blood next to a victim that his boots would have tracked about the room. In another, after taking two wayward head shots at a fleeing clinic worker, Russell dropped to his knee, bringing his "sight picture down to center mass like a good soldier" and fired again upon the worker, who survived.
"(This was) a deliberate, methodical, complex hunt throughout the building, sir," said Phillip Curran, an Operations Officer in the 11th Military Police Battalion, also known as the Criminal Investigation Command.
"There was nothing disorganized about it," Curran said.
Russell's state of mind during the attacks, which marked one of the worst episodes of soldier-on-soldier violence in the Iraq war, has been central to legal proceedings over the past year at the Pacific Northwest military base, one of the Army's largest.
Defense attorneys, who had not yet made an opening statement, have said Russell suffered a host of mental ailments after several combat tours and was suicidal before the attack. With his mind damaged and unable to get the help he needed, they say, he cracked.
"My plan was to kill myself," Russell said during his plea-hearing. "I wanted the pain to stop."
An independent forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Sadoff of the University of Pennsylvania, concluded that Russell suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and psychosis at the time of the shootings.
Army prosecutors said Russell tried to gain a quick exit from the Army and sought revenge on a mental health worker who would not help him achieve that goal.
Prosecutors have called witnesses who described the more than 40 minutes Russell had to consider his actions as he drove to the clinic with a stolen Ford SUV and M16-A2, how he removed identification tags and the gun's optic, and have described him as having a stone-faced demeanor.
Defense lawyers could make an opening statement and call a first witnesses on Thursday. Sentencing is likely next week.
Russell, who agreed to plead guilty in a deal that will spare him the death penalty, faces up to life in confinement without the possibility of parole, forfeiture of pay and a dishonorable discharge.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)