updated 3/17/2007 5:00:39 AM ET 2007-03-17T09:00:39

A military panel found a 101st Airborne soldier guilty of three counts of negligent homicide but not guilty of premeditated murder in the deaths of three Iraqi detainees.

Staff Sgt. Ray Girouard, 24, smiled as he hugged his defense lawyer and family members after the verdict was read. He faced up to life in prison had he been found guilty of premeditated murder.

The panel, which deliberated for four hours, also found Girouard guilty of obstruction of justice for lying to investigators and of conspiracy for trying to conceal the crime.

A negligent homicide charge carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison. The sentencing portion of the trial begins Monday.

Girouard was accused of telling his soldiers to release detainees they captured during the May 9 raid near Samarra, Iraq, and then shoot them as they fled.

Girouard is the last and most senior soldier from the 101st Airborne Division to face trial in the killings.

Girouard testified during the trial that he lied to investigators about the slayings to protect his soldiers, and that he never told two of his soldiers, Spc. William Hunsaker and Pfc. Corey Clagett, to kill the detainees.

Attack faked
After he discovered the slayings, Girouard said, he decided to help them fake an attack, cutting Hunsaker and punching Clagett in the face, and lying to superiors by saying his soldiers shot the detainees in self-defense.

Defense attorney Anita Gorecki stressed in closing arguments Friday that Girouard did not plan the slayings and that prosecutors never provided a motive for Girouard to order the killing during the mission.

Prosecutors characterized Girouard as a liar who can’t be trusted and that he only changed his story when the other soldiers agreed to make plea agreements.

Hunsaker, Clagett and another soldier, Spc. Juston Graber, have pleaded guilty to other charges. Hunsaker and Clagett testified that Girouard gave them the orders, while Graber testified that the soldiers were given an option to participate in the plan to kill the detainees.

Clagett and Hunsaker pleaded guilty to murder and each were sentenced to 18 years in prison. Graber pleaded guilty to aggravated assault for killing a wounded detainee and was sentenced to nine months.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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