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Army sergeant found guilty of murder of 5 at clinic in Iraq

JOINT BASE LEWIS MCCHORD, Wash., May 14 (UPI) — U.S. Army Sgt. John Russell was found guilty of premeditated murder in the 2009 deaths of five service personnel in a mental health facility in Iraq.

Col. David L. Conn, the military judge who delivered the verdict Monday at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington, rejecting the defense’s plea to consider severe depression and post-combat stress they argued led to sergeant to commit the killings, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The case was the worst incident of violence committed by a U.S. service member on colleagues during the Iraq War. It first was tried as a death penalty case until Russell agreed to plead guilty to the killings.

The court-martial hinged on whether the killings of Maj. Matthew Houseal, 54; Cmdr. Keith Springle, 52; Sgt. Christian E. Bueno-Galdos, 25; Spc. Jacob Barton, 20; and PFC Michael Yates, 19, were premeditated.

Defense lawyers argued Russell, now 48, suffered from sleep problems and had sunk into a deep depression days before the shootings, snapping after two Army mental health providers treated him harshly and turned aside his efforts to get help.

Prosecutors said Army psychiatrists tried to help Russell, who they said was angry because officials would not grant him a mental disability discharge from the Army.

Conn also found Russell guilty of the premeditated attempted murder of Sgt. Dominic Morales, a reception clerk who hid under a desk then fled as Russell fired at him. He also was found guilty of assaulting Sgt. Enos Richard, who was forced at gunpoint to turn over his M-16 rifle and the keys to his vehicle, which Russell drove to the mental health clinic and opened fire.

A sentencing hearing began immediately after the verdict Monday, the Times said. Conn must impose a life sentence, but could decide to make Russell eligible for parole.

Since the shootings of two doctors and three service personnel, the defense has mainly blamed Lt. Col. Michael Jones, the last psychiatrist to see Russell, the Times said. They said Jones made light of Russell’s threat to kill himself.

During the sentencing phase Monday, Jones offered a fierce defense of the doctors and said the killings were not the result of untreated mental illness, the Times said.

“I guess I should be grateful for being alive … [and] since that day, the soul-searching has been relentless,” Jones said.

“I believe both professionally and in my heart that Sgt. Russell committed a deliberate and premeditated act. It was like hijacking an airplane. There was no indecision. He was so focused. He was judge, jury and executioner for his idea of justice,” Jones said. “We saw vengeance that day.”

The Times said the sentencing phase was expected to last most of the week.

Copyright 2013 United Press International, Inc. (UPI).

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