TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier accused of killing five fellow servicemen at a military combat stress center in Baghdad in 2009 entered no plea at an arraignment on Monday at a military base in Washington state.
Sergeant John Russell 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. Six months ago, he was ordered to stand trial in a military court that has the power to sentence him to the death penalty, if convicted.
Two of the five people killed in the shooting were medical staff officers at the counseling center for troops experiencing combat stress. The others were soldiers.
Russell, tall and broad-shouldered with a military crew-cut style haircut and glasses, was mostly silent during the 15- minute hearing, answering only “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” to the judge’s questions.
Russell’s attorney, James Culp, waived hearing of the charges on Russell’s behalf and entered no plea for him, which is common practice in military justice procedure.
The arraignment, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, comes at a sensitive time for the Army, which is in the process of deciding how to prosecute Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, the soldier accused of killing Afghan villagers in cold blood earlier this year.
A two-week hearing at Lewis-McChord to establish if there is sufficient evidence to send Bales to a court-martial wrapped up last week following harrowing testimony from Afghan adults and children wounded in the attack.
Bales’ civilian defense lawyers have suggested he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, an argument that has already played a role in Russell’s case.
In the days following the Iraq 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.
Russell’s attorney 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. The Army’s General Court-Martial Convening Authority disagreed and referred the case as a capital crime in May.
At the time, an Army spokesman said that decision was made because of the severity of what he called “blue-on-blue” killings.
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. Before the shooting, Russell’s commander had determined that Russell’s weapon should be taken away.
Reporting By Laura L. Myers; Writing by Bill Rigby; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Peter Cooney