By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier charged with killing five fellow servicemen in 2009 at a military counseling center in Iraq is seeking a plea deal with Army prosecutors that would spare him from facing the death penalty, his lawyer told Reuters on Tuesday.
Army Sergeant John Russell, under confinement at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, is accused of going on a shooting frenzy at Camp Liberty, adjacent to the Baghdad airport, in an attack his lawyers have insisted stemmed from combat stress.
Jury selection for his court-martial had been set to begin this week.
But those proceedings were paused while negotiations continued between the two sides on a possible deal in which Russell would plead guilty to murder in return for prosecutors agreeing not to seek the death penalty, his civilian attorney, James Culp said.
"The pretrial agreement that we are working through would have John plead guilty to murder-two, intentional murder, where John takes responsibility for the intentional killing of five people," he told Reuters.
Army prosecutors declined to discuss the status of the case.
The prosecution, which has accused Russell of acting with premeditation, is likely to seek a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, Culp said. He declined to say what punishment he would recommend.
Assuming the talks lead to an agreement, the presiding judge in the case, Army Colonel David Conn, will question Russell next Monday in a proceeding known as a "providence inquiry" to determine whether the circumstances of the shooting support a guilty plea and that Russell believes he is guilty.
DEGREE OF GUILT
Even if the judge accepts the plea bargain, under the military justice system Russell would still face a court-martial - with opening and closing statements, testimony from witnesses and the presentation of evidence - to decide the degree of his guilt.
The choice then would be between a verdict of premeditated murder, or the lesser offense of intentional murder, and his prison term would hinge on that finding.
If no plea bargain is reached, or if the judge rejects such a deal, then Russell would face a lengthier, full-fledged trial in which the determination of his guilt or innocence would be at stake, as well as the question of a death penalty if he were convicted of premeditated murder.
His lawyers would also be free to pursue an acquittal through an insanity defense in that instance.
The state of Russell's mind has been the focus of legal proceedings over the past year and would remain a key factor in deciding whether he acted with malice of forethought or acted on impulse.
Defense attorneys have said Russell, who was attached to the 54th Engineer Battalion based in Bamberg, Germany, suffered a host of mental ailments after several combat tours and was suicidal prior to the attack.
An independent forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Sadoff, has concluded that Russell suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and psychosis at the time of the shootings. And Sadoff suggested Russell was provoked to violence by maltreatment at the hands of mental health personnel he sought for treatment at Camp Liberty.
"At the very last moment, the extreme despair became rage, and he killed people," Culp said. "He didn't have the mental wherewithal to be planning pre-meditated murder."
Conn will also decide after next Monday's providence inquiry whether Russell will be tried before a judge alone or a jury.
Jury selection, if a panel is to be needed, would begin on April 23, with the two sides slated to begin presenting their case at trial on May 6.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Steve Gorman and Lisa Shumaker)