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Lawyer: Sgt. doesn't remember clinic killings

May. 21, 2012 - 07:28PM   |   Last Updated: May. 21, 2012 - 07:28PM  |  
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SEATTLE — An Army sergeant charged with killing four other soldiers and a Navy officer in May 2009 at a mental health clinic in Iraq should not face a possible death penalty, his lawyer said Monday.

Sgt. John Russell has no memory of being inside the Camp Liberty Combat Stress Center near Baghdad, attorney James Culp said.

"We believe strongly that John went to kill himself in front of the doctor who had mocked him and antagonized him," Culp said. "And the doctors say he was suffering from major depression with psychotic features and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder."

The facts do not warrant a death penalty, he said.

Premeditated murder charges were filed Wednesday against Russell, 47, of Sherman, Texas.

The lawyer from Austin, Texas, said he had tried to avert the possibility of a death sentence.

"The delays were all requested by the defense in the hopes we would end up with a non-capital referral," Culp said.

If convicted, the maximum punishment is death, but the court-martial jury will have options short of the death penalty, he said.

"We do not believe now that when a military panel is seated, this is the type of punishment they will seek to impose on John, once the facts are heard," Culp said.

Russell's lack of memory will be a problem for the defense, he said.

No date for the court-martial has been set, but Culp said he asked for a date in December and the government wants an earlier date.

The shootings are believed to be the worst case of soldier-on-soldier violence of the Iraq War, said Culp and Joint Base Lewis-McChord spokesman Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield.

Russell also has an Army defense attorney, but it is standard procedure for them not to comment to the media, Dangerfield said.

The military trial will focus on the mental stress of combat, Culp said.

"The court-martial will tell us a lot about the lack of mental health care in the combat zone," he said.

A hearing on possible charges held in August 2009 at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., established that Russell was nearing the end of his third tour when his behavior changed. Members of his unit testified that he became more distant in the days before the May 11, 2009, attack, and that he seemed paranoid that his unit was trying to end his career.

On May 8, 2009, Russell sought help at a combat stress clinic at Camp Stryker, where his unit was located. On May 10, 2009, Russell was referred to the Camp Liberty clinic, where he received counseling and prescription medication to treat his symptoms.

Witnesses said the following day they saw Russell crying and talking about hurting himself. He went back to the Camp Liberty clinic, where a doctor told him he needed to get help or he would hurt himself. Russell tried to surrender to military police to lock him up so he wouldn't hurt himself or others, witnesses said.

Military prosecutors said Russell left the clinic and later returned with a rifle he took from his unit headquarters and began firing. He was arrested afterward.

Killed in the shooting were Navy Cmdr. Charles Springle, 52, of Wilmington, N.C., and four Army service members: Pfc. Michael Edward Yates Jr., 19, of Federalsburg, Md.; Dr. Matthew Houseal, of Amarillo, Texas; Sgt. Christian E. Bueno-Galdos, 25, of Paterson, N.J.; and Spc. Jacob D. Barton, 20, of Lenox, Mo.

Russell deployed to Iraq with the 370th Engineer Company, 54th Engineer Battalion from Bamberg, Germany. In Iraq the 54th was assigned to the 555th Engineer Brigade, based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which is responsible for the court-martial.

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