WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army soldiers accused of raping an Iraqi teenager and killing her and her family were “numb” from the effects of combat, and their statements in the case may have been somewhat scripted by investigators, a defense lawyer said Friday.
David Sheldon, a Washington-based attorney for one of the soldiers — Spc. James Barker — said that his client was interrogated for about eight hours and that by the end of the interview, two Army criminal investigators “were saying this is how you’re going to say it.”
He added, “When you’re in battle for a sustained period of time, there’s certainly a numbing effect as to how one responds in any one situation.” Barker, he said, did two combat tours in Iraq, saw members of his unit killed, was exposed to roadside bombs and was ordered to work for long hours at the traffic checkpoint near where the family lived.
The stressful war duty, Sheldon said, affected how the soldiers acted.
Sheldon also revealed for the first time Friday that military prosecutors plan to have some Iraqis testify at the hearing of the four accused soldiers. The Article 32 hearing, which is comparable to a grand jury proceeding, is scheduled to begin in Iraq early next month.
But Sheldon said the Iraqis, who have not been identified, will not be made available to defense attorneys before their testimony — a move he said he will challenge.
Barker is one of five soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division who are accused of raping and murdering 14-year-old Abeer al-Janabi, killing her family, then burning their house and her body to hide the crime. The soldiers allegedly planned the crimes over a week’s time.
One of the soldiers, Steven D. Green, was discharged from the Army because of a personality disorder and is being prosecuted in federal court. He was arrested last month in North Carolina.
The other four — Barker, Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, Pfc. Jesse V. Spielman and Pfc. Bryan L. Howard — have been detained at Camp Victory outside Baghdad. They are charged with rape and murder, for allegedly conspiring with Green on the crimes and trying to cover them up.
According to documents detailing the charges against Barker, Cortez, Spielman and Howard, all four were charged with raping Abeer, and killing her family, including a young sister. Barker, Spielman and Cortez were charged with burning down the house, impeding the investigation by having their clothes and the girl’s body burned and illegally drinking alcohol in Iraq.
Cortez was charged with ordering Spielman to throw the gun they used into a canal, and Spielman was charged with disposing of the gun and inappropriately touching Abeer’s corpse.
Facing death penalty
The documents were obtained by The Associated Press on Friday. The military has declined to release them.
Sheldon said prosecutors will be relying heavily on the statements made by the soldiers to prove that the crimes were premeditated. And, he said, “I think there are aspects of each one of these statements that are very troubling” and untrue.
Military officials have been so far stymied in their efforts to exhume Abeer’s body, and without forensic evidence, prosecutors must rely heavily on the statements from the suspects.
If the case goes to trial, the soldiers could face the death penalty.
Army spokesman Paul Boyce said that “the Army has a long history of policing itself and continues to live up to the Army values.” He said “it was soldiers who reported the allegations of misconduct, and the U.S. Army is committed to investigating them in thorough, fair manner respectful of the rights of all.”
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