A soldier who faced the death penalty on charges that he murdered five service members at a military mental health clinic in Baghdad reached a plea agreement with the Army this week and is expected in court at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Monday.
The Army’s announcement of the agreement and coming court date signal the end of a four-year effort to bring Sgt. John Russell, 48, to trial for allegedly killing Navy Cmdr. Charles Springle and the Army’s Maj. Matthew Houseal, Sgt. Christian Bueno-Galdos, Spc. Jacob Barton and Pfc. Michael Yates Jr. on May 11, 2009.
The charges marked the worst case of fratricide in the Iraq War. They also tested the military’s mental health system because of Russell’s documented efforts to get help for suicidal and homicidal thoughts in Iraq on his third combat deployment.
James Culp, Russell’s civilian defense attorney, did not respond to requests for comment from The News Tribune on Friday. He confirmed to Reuters that Russell would plead guilty to the murder charges on Monday.
The Army did not characterize the plea agreement. It published a press release Friday morning saying that Russell would be in court for a plea hearing.
Russell had been scheduled to be in court this week for jury selection. That procedure was postponed when lawyers started focusing on the plea agreement.
Sworn statements obtained by The News Tribune suggest Russell snapped when he felt he was being mistreated by health care providers at Camp Liberty in Baghdad.
His unit sent him to the clinic on May 8, 2009 after six days of mood swings. He felt slighted by two officers who he believed did not take him seriously, according to a court documents..
“He felt that everyone had lost hope in him and no one wanted him around, ” remembered Lt. David Vasquez in a sworn statement.
Russell underwent a year of mental health treatment after the killings before he was found fit to stand trial. An Army judge later recommended that the military pursue a life sentence instead of the death penalty in part because of Russell’s efforts to get help before the killings.
A doctor later diagnosed him with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to court documents.
“Do we kill some who is suffering from two severe mental defects when he snaps and does something in a combat zone? I think the answer is no, ” Culp told The News Tribune last year.
The long wait for the trial has frustrated families of Russell’s alleged victims.
“It’s just not justified. There’s really no good reason,” Springle’s brother, Tom Springle, told Stars and Stripes last month. “We’ve waited long enough.”