TOPEKA, Kan. - An Army sergeant accused of killing four fellow soldiers and a Navy officer at a mental health clinic on a military base in Iraq two years ago should be tried for murder but should not face the possibility of execution because he suffers from serious mental illness, a military judge recommended.
Sgt. John Russell, who is accused of opening fire at the combat stress center at Camp Liberty near Baghdad in May 2009 in what would be the deadliest act of soldier-on-soldier violence in the Iraq war, should be held accountable for his actions and face a court martial on the five counts of premeditated murder he faces, Col. James Pohl wrote in his recommendations issued Friday.
"However, in my opinion, the accused (sic) undisputed mental disease or defect make the death penalty inappropriate in this case," wrote Pohl, who presided over a four-day preliminary hearing in August at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
An Army general will decide whether to accept Pohl's recommendation or not. A time a place for a court martial to begin had not been set.
Russell, 46, was nearing the end of his third tour in May 2009 when the attack occurred. Days before the attack, he sought treatment at the center because he felt he might harm himself. His attorneys contend that Russell was under stress from multiple deployments in Iraq and was frustrated with what they have described as inadequate mental health treatment.
Two evaluations were presented at the August hearing saying that Russell suffered from severe depression "with psychotic features and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder." A March 2011 evaluation said the major depression with psychotic features was in partial remission.
James Culp, a civilian attorney assisting Army public defenders in the case, said Friday that the testimony from the August hearing showed that his client "was cracking apart."
Culp said it was significant that Pohl recognized that Russell was suffering from mental illness and under severe stress at the time of the shootings.
"In the end, though, regardless of whether the convening authority does or does not follow the recommendations, the underlying premise in Judge Pohl's recommendation will remain true until the end of these proceedings," Culp said.
Government attorneys sought to show that whatever stress he faced, Russell remained coherent enough just before the shootings in May 2009 to reflect on his actions.
Russell's case has raised questions about the mental problems for soldiers caused by repeated tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and whether the Army's mental health care is adequate. The case led to an investigation and a critical report.
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.