TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier accused of killing five fellow servicemen at a military combat stress center in Baghdad in 2009 will face an arraignment at a military base in Washington state on Monday, preparing the way for a trial that could result in the death penalty.
Sergeant John Russell, of the 54th Engineer Battalion based in Bamberg, Germany, 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.
The soldier 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 empowered to assign 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.
It is not known how Russell will plead after hearing the charges against him. An Army spokesman said Russell was expected to be in court during the arraignment. Russell’s attorney, James Culp, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. No trial date has been set.
The arraignment, scheduled to take place 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, after 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. That view was not shared by the Army’s General Court-Martial Convening Authority, which 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 should have his weapon taken away. (Reporting By Laura L. Myers; Writing by Bill Rigby; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Peter Cooney)