4:50 p.m. update: The Army’s prosecution of Sgt. John Russell kicked off this afternoon with an argument that the soldier knew exactly what he was doing when he worked his way through a Baghdad combat stress clinic shooting anyone he saw.
Russell, 48, two weeks ago pleaded guilty to killing five of his fellow service members in May 2009, but he contends the shootings took place “in a rage” when he had little to no control of his emotions. He would not plead guilty to premeditated murder.
Prosecutors today began to make their that Russell showed premeditation in the attack, arguing Russell shot up the clinic because he was angered by psychiatrists who would not send him home early from what was his third deployment in Iraq.
“This is not a case about rage. This is a case about revenge, payback,” argued Lt. Col. Robert Stelle.
This afternoon’s testimony is almost entirely the prosecution’s show. Russell’s defense team deferred its opening argument before Army judge Col. David Conn. Murder with premeditation would result in a mandatory minimum life sentence for Russell.
Prosecutors cast the killings as a calculated attack that unfolded long after Russell’s first visit to the combat stress clinic on May 11, 2009.
“He made choices,” Stelle said.
Stelle suggested Russell had more than an hour in between an emotional encounter he had with a psychiatrist at Camp Liberty in Baghdad and his return to the clinic where the meeting took place.
Stelle further argued that Russell had several opportunities to think through his decisions, such as when he parked outside of the clinic and had a smoke before entering the building with an M16 rifle he swiped from the soldier who was guarding him that day.
Earlier today, attorneys sparred for four and a half hours about whether a defense mental health expert can draw on conclusions from University of Pennsylvania psychologist Ruben Gur, who found “abnormalities” in Russell’s head scans that could have suggested he had trouble controlling his behavior. Conn said he would permit discussion of Gur’s findings at the trial even though two Army experts said there were flaws in Gur’s report.
Russell’s court-martial could take days or weeks. About a dozen relatives of his victims are in court observing the trial.
Prosecutors called the soldier who was charged with guarding Russell on the day of the killings as their first witness. Retired Staff Sgt. Enos Richard narrated a video he filmed showing the route he drove when he took Russell from their headquarters at Baghdad’s Camp Stryker to the combat stress clinic at Camp Liberty.
The purpose appeared to be to show how long it took for Russell to reach the clinic when he seized Richard’s rifle and the keys to the Ford Explorer just before the killings. Richard’s testimony showed multiple intersections where Russell could have made a wrong turn, and the video demonstrated the drive took about 30 minutes or more.
Richard said Russell appeared angry when he left his appointment at Liberty with psychiatrist Lt. Col. Michael Jones. Jones called military police to chase after Russell, and the doctor and patient appeared to shout at each other.
When Richard took Russell back to their headquarters, he got out of the Explorer and found that Russell had taken his M16. Russell pointed the rifle at Richard and demanded the keys to the SUV. Richard complied when he became convinced that Russell was serious.
“I looked into his face and he had no expression, no emotions in his face,” Richard said.
The sergeant who pleaded guilty to killing five fellow U.S. service members at a Baghdad military mental health clinic is back in court today to fight the Army’s contention that he murdered his victims with premeditation.
Sgt. John Russell, 48, on April 22 admitted that he killed 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.
In exchange for his guilty plea, the Army capped his maximum punishment at a life sentence instead of the death penalty.
But he appears to be preparing to contest the premeditation charges on the grounds that he lost control of his emotions as he sought help for distress he experienced on his third tour of duty in Iraq.
Both the prosecution and defense have a lot of material to make their case.
For the prosecution, Russell admitted two weeks ago that he carried out the killings at least 80 minutes after he had an emotional encounter with a doctor at the clinic. He left that meeting believing the doctor had encouraged him to kill himself.
Russell and his guard drove 40 minutes back to his headquarters, where Russell took the guard’s rifle and vehicle. Russell then drove another 40 minutes in traffic back to the mental health clinic at Camp Liberty.
“What I remember most is I just wanted to kill myself,” he said when he offered his guilty plea to Army judge Col. David Conn.
He could not find the doctor who he believed disregarded his distress, but still worked his way through the clinic killing the five service members. Any one of those killings could be considered premeditated and result in Russell receiving a mandatory minimum life sentence.
For the defense, Russell sought help for a breakdown he was experiencing over several days in early May 2009. The first doctor he visited treated him rudely. Russell and another witness believed that doctor was trying to make an example of him for other clinicians whom she thought were treating patients too generously.
“I was so upset after that meeting that I went outside and threw up,” Russell said in court on April 22.
Russell in his following visits to the clinic at Camp Liberty admitted that he could not read people well. He said he misunderstood Springle’s attempts to lighten the mood in a meeting they had together.
His emotions came to a peak on the day of the killings in a difficult encounter he had with psychiatrist Lt. Col. Michael Jones. Russell left the meeting convinced the doctor wanted the sergeant to take his own life. Instead, Russell returned and attacked the clinic “in a rage.”
Russell has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. He said in court last month that those ailments likely influenced his behavior on his deployment.
At the time of the killings, Russell was serving in a Germany-based engineer company. His trial is taking place at Joint Base Lewis-McChord because his company fell under the command of a Lewis-McChord brigade while it was in Iraq.