US sergeant pleads not guilty to murder in Iraq

15th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

Hatley is the most senior of three US non-commissioned officers to be tried in Germany for killing four detainees who prosecutors and two witnesses have said were bound, blindfolded and shot in the head.

Vilseck -- US Master Sergeant John E. Hatley pleaded not guilty Monday to murder charges that included what a prosecutor has termed the "execution-style" shootings of prisoners in Iraq.

Hatley, 40, is accused of five counts of premeditated murder, one count of conspiracy to commit premeditated murder and one count of obstruction of justice according to an army charge sheet.

He stands accused of killings in two separate events, including the shooting of a wounded detainee who was close to death, according to two medics.

Hatley's civilian lawyer David Court entered the plea before a court martial judge, Colonel Jeffrey Nance, at the Rose Barracks Courthouse, near the southern German town of Vilseck, because the defendant is now based in Germany.

The court tore into prosecution witnesses who represent the government's only chance for a conviction, including two who have already been found guilty in the second case.

The lawyer underscored inconsistencies between several written statements signed in January 2008 and testimony given Monday to an eight-man panel of four senior sergeants and four commissioned officers.

Hatley is the most senior of three US non-commissioned officers to be tried for killing four detainees who prosecutors and two witnesses have said were bound, blindfolded and shot in the head.

Hatley is accused of killing of the wounded prisoner on or about January 3, 2007.

Sergeant Michael Leahy, a medic who has been convicted in connection with the second murders, said Hatley pulled the man out of an armoured vehicle, stood over him and fired into his chest.

The corpse was taken in a body bag to an Iraqi police station and "put in a pile of other bodies," Leahy said.

The four subsequent murders were allegedly committed in March or April 2007 in or near southwest Baghdad.

An exact date and location have not been determined in that case, and the bodies, which witnesses said were dumped into a canal, have never been found.

Court told the panel that prosecutors had "no evidence, just assumption based on testimony," including that of two other sergeants convicted of taking part in the killings.

One testified that Hatley shot two prisoners with a nine-millimetre pistol, one in the back of the head, the other in the chest after he was just wounded.

The soldiers -- Leahy and Sergeant First Class Joseph P. Mayo -- have been convicted and sentenced to life and 35 years in prison respectively, with the possibility of parole.

Army Captain John Riesenberg, a prosecutor at both Hatley's and Mayo's trial, has charged that the prisoners were shot "execution style."

Hatley himself gave only a few brief responses to judge Nance's questions.

According to testimony, all three sergeants shot the detainees with pistols.

"I stood there wondering when I was supposed to shoot," Leahy testified.

He added that one man he shot was not killed outright, but fell to the ground and "made a gurgling noise" before Hatley stepped over and "put two shots in his chest."

But Court stressed that the "ABCs" of murder convictions -- autopsy, body, and cause of death -- were absent

The prisoners had been seized with assault rifles and a duffel bag full of ammunition and two sniper rifles were found nearby, Mayo has testified.

The US unit, from the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, then part of the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, was still coming to terms with a fatal sniper attack on another sergeant a few weeks earlier.

Mayo testified that Hatley, who led the patrol, had not forced either himself or Leahy to fire, and another prosecutor, Captain Derrick Grace, told the panel Hatley had just asked the seven-man patrol "who's with me?"

They were stationed at a highly exposed combat outpost in West Rashid, one of the most violent Baghdad neighbourhoods at the time.

Rules of engagement often meant setting prisoners free however, which had bred "frustration and fear" according to a witness at Mayo's trial.

Mayo testified Monday that after the killings, Hatley gathered the men at the post and told them: "this was for our fallen soldiers."

Bill Ickes/AFP/Expatica

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