US troops could face death penalty in Iraq case
WASHINGTON, Sep 3 (Reuters) A US Army officer has recommended that four U.S. troops face the death penalty if convicted of killing three detainees during a raid in Iraq in May, one of the soldier's lawyers said today.
The investigating officer, Lt Col James Daniel, made his recommendation after finding ''aggravating circumstances'' in the case, said the lawyer, Paul Bergrin.
The last US soldier to be executed was hanged at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1961 -- for the rape and attempted murder of an 11-year-old Austrian girl.
A US military spokesman in Baghdad, Lt Col Barry Johnson, declined to comment on the Iraq investigation, saying details had not yet been publicly released.
The soldiers, all members of the 101st Airborne Division, maintain they acted in self-defense after the detainees used a hidden knife to cut plastic handcuffs. At issue is what Bergrin said was the detainees' attempt to escape.
In a 10-page report dated August 31, Daniel recommended that three of the soldiers -- Staff Sgt Raymond Girouard, Spec.
William Hunsaker and Pfc. Corey Clagett -- be charged with plotting to murder the detainees and then threatening another soldier not to tell anyone, Bergrin said.
Daniel found that Spec Juston Graber withdrew from the alleged conspiracy but should nevertheless face murder charges for a death the defense calls a mercy killing of a detainee considered ''brain-dead.'' All of the soldiers are from the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne, based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
''These soldiers believed that their lives were in jeopardy, that they were threatened, that these guys were going for weapons,'' said Bergrin, who represents Clagett. ''They did their job and they served with nothing but honor and distinction.'' Daniel's recommendations followed a hearing last month in Iraq to determine whether enough evidence existed for a court-martial.
The decision on Daniel's recommendation is to be made by the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, Maj Gen Thomas Turner, who has not yet made up his mind, said Major Josslyn Aberle, a military spokeswoman in Baghdad.
Any court-martial could take place on a military base in Iraq or at Fort Campbell. The four accused soldiers have been held in Kuwait, said Johnson, the spokesman for U.S.-led forces in Iraq.
The killing of the three detainees has raised questions that go beyond the four accused soldiers. The military is investigating whether Col. Michael Steele, commander of the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade, encouraged excessive violence, for instance by handing out knives as rewards for killing insurgents, Steele, prior to the May 9 US raid on an island near Samarra, ordered his troops to kill all military-age males they came across, Bergrin said.
The Los Angeles Times said Steele was fighting a disciplinary action against him and denied any wrongdoing.
Steele a storied figure who led the 1993 Somalia rescue mission recounted in the book and movie ''Black Hawk Down.'' Military executions are rare. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the president personally must approve all death sentences.
Since 1916, 135 soldiers have been executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In 1997, then-president Bill Clinton added life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty.
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