By Eric M. Johnson
TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A military judge ruled on Monday that a U.S. soldier who shot and killed five fellow servicemen at a combat stress clinic in Iraq acted with premeditation, a decision that will almost surely get him life in prison.
U.S. Army Sergeant John Russell, in a deal that spared him the death penalty, pleaded guilty last month to killing two medical staff officers and three soldiers at Camp Liberty in Baghdad in a 2009 shooting that the military has said may have been triggered by combat stress.
Russell faced an abbreviated court-martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state to determine the level of his guilt and whether he acted with premeditation, as prosecutors said, or on impulse, as the defense has argued.
The judge in the case, Army Colonel David Conn, asked Russell, to stand and gave his ruling. He did not provide further details.
Russell's state of mind before, during and after the attack, one of the worst incidents 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.
In his ruling, the judge ultimately sided with prosecutors who said Russell tried to gain an early exit from the Army and had then sought revenge on a mental health worker who would not help him achieve that goal.
The mandatory sentence for even one count of premeditated murder is life in prison, and at issue going forward is whether Russell will ever be eligible for parole. Both sides will present arguments, and Conn is likely to rule on that by week's end.
After the verdict, prosecutors called several witnesses who gave emotional accounts, often directed at Russell, who sat and listened calmly, of the personal fallout they suffered since the attack.
"Are you numb?" clinic technician Alexandria Miller, who was outside the clinic in the moments before the attack, asked Russell. "You are an emotionless monster. You have robbed the world of five angels."
Prosecutors painted Russell, a 48-year-old Texas native, as a calculating and vindictive malingerer who had been angered after a nasty spat with a healthcare worker at the clinic who refused to help him leave the Army early.
They said he stole a Ford SUV, loaded a 30-round magazine into an M16-A2 rifle, and drove roughly 40 minutes to the clinic to exact revenge. There, he smoked a cigarette, removed identification tags and the gun's optical sight and slipped into the clinic through a back entrance closest to that doctor's office.
An Army forensic science officer who analyzed the scene after the attack testified that Russell killed with the tactical precision of a trained soldier.
But defense attorneys set forth a sharply different theory, saying Russell's mental health had been severely weakened by several combat tours and that he was suicidal prior to the attack and provoked to violence by maltreatment at the hands of healthcare workers at Camp Liberty.
A 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 and had death wishes related to his illnesses.
"My plan was to kill myself," Russell said during his plea hearing. "I wanted the pain to stop."
The last doctor to treat Russell before the attack, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Jones, had engaged in a heated exchange with Russell the day of the attack, a day after a Russell implored Jones for help making an early exit.
Jones, who had been on a phone call in a separate clinic office during the attack, testified on Monday he was grateful to be alive. He dove out a window and was unharmed. On Monday, he addressed the rows of family members of the dead and drew attention to that fact.
"They have suffered immensely, greater than I have," Jones said. "(Russell) was judge, jury and executioner in his idea of justice."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, G Crosse, Bernard Orr and Cynthia Osterman)