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The Associated Press June 5, 2005

Short sentences, dismissals show wartime murder prosecutions hard

By Tim Whitmire

A soldier who admitted executing a wounded Iraqi teenager received three years in prison. His co-defendant got a one-year term. A captain convicted of charges in the fatal shooting of another wounded Iraqi was dismissed from the armed forces, but received no prison time.

In the 27 months since the Iraq war began, at least 10 U.S. military personnel have been convicted of a wide array of charges stemming from the deaths of Iraqi civilians. But only one sentence has exceeded three years, and last month two men - a Marine lieutenant and an Army sergeant - were cleared entirely of murder charges.

Still pending are courts-martial on murder charges for six Army soldiers.

Military officials say the number of crimes alleged are minuscule compared to the mammoth task of trying to bring peace to Iraq, and many who opposed prosecuting soldiers have argued that top brass is overzealously second-guessing soldiers' actions in the field.

But some observers question the punishments, or say the crimes suggest a need for increased efforts to protect soldiers from combat stress.

"There have been some convictions in which the sentences are amazingly light," said Gary D. Solis, a retired Marine who teaches law at the U.S. Military Academy.

Many of the deaths have been horrific. Prosecutors said one man drowned after Army soldiers forced him into the Tigris River as punishment for breaking a curfew. The lieutenant who allegedly ordered the action received 45 days on an assault conviction.

A prisoner died after being dragged out of his holding cell by the neck, stripped naked and left outside for seven hours. The Marine major who commanded the facility was convicted of dereliction of duty and maltreatment and dismissed from the service.

And at Fort Carson, Colo., three Army soldiers are awaiting courts-martial on murder charges in the death of an Iraqi general who was allegedly placed headfirst in a sleeping bag, tied up with electrical cord and crushed by soldiers who sat and stood on him during an interrogation.

Circumstances can make convictions hard to obtain. In the alleged drowning case, charges were downgraded after prosecutors were unable to produce the victim's body.

In other cases, defendants have argued that they used lethal force in self-defense.

Maj. Douglas Powell, a Marine Corps spokesman, said close investigation often reveals soldiers acted justifiably.

"I think what doesn't get told is the many cases where Marines have not engaged, not fired, not taken appropriate actions that they would be justified to take ... and it did result in saving innocent life," Powell said.

A series of cases stemming from the execution of gravely wounded Iraqis have resulted in sentences of three years or less. Defendants and their lawyers have described the slayings as "mercy killings," though the Geneva Convention expressly forbids the execution of the wounded.

During Vietnam, America's most recent lengthy war, 95 soldiers and 27 Marines were convicted of murder. But the two wars were very different. More than 1,670 American military personnel have died in Iraq so far, compared to nearly 60,000 Americans who died over more than a decade in Vietnam. Approximately 140,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq; the peak U.S. force in Vietnam numbered 550,000.

Solis said alleged war crimes in Iraq also may be more strictly reported and investigated than during Vietnam.

"(You) don't know if you have more strict enforcement or if you have more strict reporting of events," he said.

Each U.S. military branch handles crimes committed by its troops through its own investigatory system, with prosecutorial decisions made by offices of a Judge Advocate General.

Prosecuting cases within an all-military judicial system ensures that defendants are held to military standards - but also allows defense lawyers to tailor arguments for judges and jurors who may be more sympathetic than the general public to defendants making decisions in a war zone.

So far in Iraq, three American soldiers have been convicted of murder. Pvt. Federico Daniel Merida of the North Carolina National Guard received 25 years in prison after being convicted in the shooting death of a 17-year-old Iraqi soldier with whom he had consensual sex.

Army Staff Sgt. Johnny Horne of Wilson, N.C., pleaded guilty to unpremeditated murder in the execution of a severely wounded Iraqi teenager during fighting in Baghdad and received three years. Co-defendant Staff Sgt. Cardenas J. Alban was convicted of murder in the same case and given a one-year sentence.

In two recent cases, a soldier and a Marine were cleared of charges they murdered suspected insurgents.

A Marine commander at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune cleared 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano of charges in the death of two Iraqi civilians on May 26; hours later, Army jurors at Fort Hood, Texas, acquitted Staff Sgt. Shane Werst of charges he killed an unarmed Iraqi.

In both cases, defense lawyers said the men acted in self-defense. Pantano received extensive support from conservatives and veterans after his mother created a lobbying group to support "the man who puts his life on the line again and again, who makes life-or-death decisions in the blazing heat, exhaustion, fear and confusion of war."

Further complicating that case, Pantano acknowledged shooting his victims more than 60 times and hanging a sign over their corpses as a warning.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a private defense policy group, was among several observers who expressed surprise that Pantano was not punished at all.

"We don't send people out there to mutilate enemy corpses," he said. "I don't think that it's going to play very well in Iraq."

Pantano had plenty of support from fellow veterans, as was evident Friday, when he met with supporters at a fish fry at an American Legion post in Wilmington, N.C. Harold Davis, a 75-year-old Korean War veteran, had tears in his eyes as he told Pantano that the military never would have charged a serviceman during Korea.

"I don't see how they could do that," he said.

The Legion post's commander, Michael Gregorio, a Marine veteran of Vietnam, said it's not fair to second-guess troops fighting a war against non-uniformed insurgents.

"You're not rushing a hill" in Iraq, he said. "You're stopping people who are civilians ... who could become insurgents in a matter of seconds."

Pike believes combat stress is to blame for many civilian killings. He noted that military officials' understanding of mental health has improved greatly since Vietnam.

Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatrist, consults to the Army's surgeon general on mental health issues and said the Army has worked hard to improve services.

Mental health personnel are now deployed at forward operating bases to eat and sleep with troops and offer treatment close to the front lines, she said. Units rotate in and out of the war zone as a group, allowing greater cohesion and improved morale compared to Vietnam, when soldiers served tours of duty as individuals.

An assessment of mental health needs conducted in Iraq in the fall of 2003 showed deficiencies, Ritchie said, and changes were made. A report on a follow-up evaluation, conducted last fall, is expected within weeks.

"We all recognize that this is a nasty war and it is going to have psychological effects on our soldiers and our veterans," she said. "We're trying to be very proactive."

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Associated Press Writer Martha Waggoner contributed to this story from Wilmington, N.C.


Copyright 2005, The Associated Press