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Army sergeant pleads guilty to killing 5 Americans in Iraq

Army Sgt. John Russell pleaded guilty on April 22, 2013, to second-degree murder charges in the shooting deaths of five fellow service members at a mental health clinic in Iraq in 2009 after the government agreed to not seek the death penalty.

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russell2JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD — A military judge on Thursday sentenced Army Sgt. John Russell to life in prison without parole for shooting to death five fellow service members at a mental health clinic in Iraq in 2009, it was reported.

The News Tribune of Tacoma said families of the victims embraced each other and wept as Col. David L. Conn, the military judge, delivered the verdict, rejecting the defense’s plea to consider the severe depression and post-combat stress they said led the 48-year-old sergeant to commit the killings.

Russell stood quietly at the defense table as the court recessed, staring at the floor only a few feet from his mother and sisters, one of whom silently bowed her head, the newspaper said.

Murder carries a mandatory minimum life sentence in Army courts, but Conn could have granted Russell a chance for a parole.

Russell, 48, was found guilty at his court-martial Monday of  premeditated murder.

The case marked the worst incident of violence committed by a U.S. serviceman on fellow soldiers during the Iraq war, and initially was tried as a death penalty case until Russell agreed to plead guilty to the murders.

He shot to death two care providers, two patients and an escort at a mental health clinic in Baghdad’s Camp Liberty on May 11, 2009. Russell received a reduction in rank to private and a dishonorable discharge, an Army spokeswoman said.

russell2By Kim Murphy

Los Angeles Times

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD — A military judge is expected to render a verdict Monday in the court-martial of Army Sgt. John Russell for the killing of five fellow service members in Iraq.

The court-martial concluded Saturday with a military judge asked to decide whether the 14-year Army veteran was deluded by depression and despair or was executing a calculated plan of revenge against psychiatrists who had blocked his hopes for an early exit from the Army.

In closing arguments after a week of testimony, Judge David L. Conn was presented two starkly different views of what drove Russell, 48, to seize his escort’s M-16 rifle and gun down five people at the Camp Liberty combat stress center at the Baghdad airport on May 11, 2009.

While the defense says Russell was suffering from organic brain damage, major depression and post-combat stress that was aggravated by hostile mental health workers, Army prosecutors argued Saturday that Russell had been trying to paint himself as mentally ill even before the murders in an attempt to win early retirement and had then struck back “in the language of revenge” when a psychiatrist refused such a diagnosis.

Russell has already pleaded guilty to five specifications of murder, but the judge will determine whether the acts were premeditated, a key factor in whether he must serve life in prison or is eligible for parole.

“He wanted out,” Maj. Daniel Mazzone told the court, as Russell’s mother and sisters from Texas, along with family members of the victims, looked on.

Fearing that a threatened sexual harassment complaint could derail his career, Russell was looking for a way to salvage his benefits, but was told the day before the killings by psychiatrist Michael Jones that a mental disability retirement would require “some kind of suicidal psychotic crisis,” Mazzone said.

But when Russell saw Jones, a lieutenant colonel, again the next day, the psychiatrist said he had no intention of giving him “a golden ticket” out of the Army. “His career was over; his life was over; everything he had worked for the last 15 years was gone,” Mazzone said.

When Russell returned about an hour later, prosecutors say, he was looking for Jones, but wound up killing two patients, a bystander and two other mental health workers, including Navy Cmdr. Keith Springle, who had also briefly treated Russell in the days before the shootings. Jones escaped injury by jumping out a window.

Prosecutors described the methodical way Russell made his way through the small wood-frame clinic. The chief psychiatrist, Maj. Matthew Houseal, 54, was the first to be shot, through a window, in the head. Springle was next, shot dead in the torso, and then shot again — after Russell entered the room where he lay — in the back of the head.  Sgt. Christian E. Bueno-Galdos died after being shot in the flank and screaming, “Oh God, oh God,” as Russell moved in and shot him in the eye.

“This soldier is looking at him and pleading for his life, and he fires a shot into his eye,” Mazzone said. “That’s not a man confused about what he’s doing.”

But defense lawyers presented testimony from a leading forensic psychiatrist and the Army’s mental health board, which found that Russell suffered from severe depression with psychotic features and post-combat stress. A brain scan, they said, showed damage to the part of his brain that affects impulse control.

Russell, on his fifth combat deployment, had long sought help with sleep troubles — a colleague videotaped him crying in his sleep — and was stammering and crying for help in the days before the shooting. His commanders were so alarmed that they disarmed him and sent him for repeated visits to mental health clinics, civilian defense lawyer James Culp noted.

On the day of the shootings, Russell told Jones that the doctor either had to help him or he would kill himself, but Jones’ dismissive response was: “You’re fixed,” Russell earlier told the court. As Russell stormed out of his office, he said, Jones yelled at him and told him, “Soldier, you’ve made your decision.”

“And he closes the book on Russell’s life,” Culp said.

Russell, Culp said, decided to kill himself in a damaged mental state that started with despair and turned to rage.

“I would like to tell you that there’s 90% evidence in this case that shows that Sgt. Russell was going to kill himself when he got back to the combat stress clinic,” Culp said. “Ninety percent. But I can’t do that. Seventy-thirty? Fifty-fifty? I don’t know. Because the truth of the matter is that Sgt. Russell had frustration and anger and disappointment over the way he’d been treated.”

Culp urged the judge to find at least that the first killing — that of Houseal, the chief psychiatrist — was committed without premeditation, even if the others were found to be calculated.

That would allow the judge to say, “I do think that you were sick,” Culp suggested. “I don’t think that you’re a homicidal maniac by nature. And that something very scary and very sad happened over a period of 10 days that represented a terrible storm.”

The Army has resisted saying Russell is mentally ill because of what it would mean about repeat combat deployments, Culp said.

“It’s been really hard for the Army to not want to dial up the vilification of John, because like a person with alcoholism, it’s not all John’s fault,” he said. “And if he’s not completely sane, then maybe something … maybe one of the three components that led up to this massacre — mental illness, organic brain damage and provocation — maybe we own a little bit of that.”

The judge is expected to render a verdict Monday morning, followed by a sentencing hearing to extend through much of the rest of the week.


The Camp Liberty shooter has been identified as Army Sgt. John M. Russell of Sherman, Texas. (CNN)

By Kim Murphy

Los Angeles Times

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — Army Sgt. John Russell pleaded guilty Monday to the second-degree murder of five fellow service members at a mental health clinic in Iraq in 2009 after the government agreed to not seek the death penalty.

Russell, 48, was dispassionate and matter-of-fact as he gave his first personal account of  his methodical march  with an M-16 rifle through the Camp Liberty combat stress center — the only mass killing of Americans by a U.S. serviceman during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I just did it out of rage, sir,” he told the judge, Col. David Conn, as he described walking from room to room, firing at mental health workers and patients.

“I was upset. I do not remember being angry, but I know that everyone who witnessed me outside the combat stress clinic said I looked angry,” he said. “What I remember most was I just wanted to kill myself. One hundred percent, I had decided to kill myself.”

Family members of two of the victims listened in the courtroom. The mother of Spc. Michael Yates Jr., broke down and had to leave as Russell calmly described chasing her son to the front door of the clinic and fatally shooting him in the chin after Yates grabbed a gun to try to stop him and found it unloaded.

The guilty plea allowed Russell to tell his story for the first time without the risks to his defense that such testimony would have presented at trial.

Army prosecutors have reserved the right to hold a separate evidentiary hearing to try to prove that Russell, in fact, is guilty of premeditated murder, a step above the offense to which he pleaded guilty.

The outcome of that hearing could determine what sentence he finally receives. Under the law, he could receive a maximum of life in prison without possibility of parole but defense lawyers hope he receives a lesser sentence if they can prove that the crime was not premeditated.

Defense lawyers waived their ability to mount an insanity defense, but as part of the plea agreement

will be able to present evidence that Russell’s mental illness and physical damage to his brain rendered him not fully mentally responsible for his crimes, which they claim occurred during a blind rage.

That portion of the case will commence on May 6.