Lawyer says U.S. soldier accused in Iraq killings reaches deal

Army Sergeant John Russell is accused of going on a shooting frenzy at Camp Liberty, adjacent to the Baghdad airport in Iraq. (Photo courtesy: AP)

A U.S. soldier accused of shooting dead five fellow servicemen at a military counseling center in Iraq has struck a plea deal with Army prosecutors that would spare him from facing the death penalty, his lawyer said on Friday.

Army Sergeant John Russell is accused of going on a shooting frenzy at Camp Liberty, adjacent to the Baghdad airport, in a 2009 attack the military said at the time could have been triggered by combat stress.

“We have reached an agreement and both parties have entered into the agreement,” his civilian attorney, James Culp, said.

He said Russell would plead guilty to five counts of intentional murder, one count of attempted murder, and one of assault at a hearing on Monday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State.

An Army spokesman declined to discuss the status of the case.

The prosecution, which has accused Russell of acting with premeditation, is likely to seek a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, Culp has previously said. He declined to say what punishment he would recommend or give details of the proceedings.

Even if the plea bargain is accepted by the presiding judge in the case, Army Colonel David Conn, under the military justice system Russell would still face a court-martial - with opening and closing statements, testimony from witnesses and the presentation of evidence - to decide the degree of his guilt.

The choice would then be between a verdict of premeditated murder and the lesser offense of intentional murder that Russell has agreed to plead guilty. His prison term would hinge on that finding. The death penalty would be off the table, as would a not-guilty verdict or insanity plea.

Mental state

Conn is set to question Russell on Monday in a proceeding known as a “providence inquiry” to determine whether the circumstances of the shooting support a guilty plea and that Russell believes he is guilty.

Conn will then decide whether Russell will be tried before a judge alone or a jury. Either way, a trial is still slated for May 6.

If the judge rejects the deal, then Russell would face a lengthier, full-fledged trial in which the determination of his guilt or innocence would be at stake, as well as the question of a death penalty if he were convicted of premeditated murder.

The state of Russell’s mind has been the focus of legal proceedings over the past year and would remain a key factor in deciding whether he acted on impulse or with malice of forethought, as alleged by military prosecutors.

Defense attorneys have said Russell, who was attached to the54th Engineer Battalion based in Bamberg, Germany, suffered a host of mental ailments after several combat tours and was suicidal prior to the attack.

An independent forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Sadoff, has 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 he sought for treatment at Camp Liberty.

The case comes at a sensitive time at Lewis-McChord, one of the nation’s largest military installations, which is also the home base of Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers in March 2012. Bales is due to face a court martial in September.

Last Update: Friday, 19 April 2013 KSA 22:25 - GMT 19:25