updated 2/18/2009 4:50:07 PM ET 2009-02-18T21:50:07

A key witness in the murder trial of a U.S. soldier accused of involvement in the execution-style killings of four Iraqi prisoners testified Wednesday that he saw the defendant walking toward the bound, blindfolded men with his pistol drawn before they were slain.

Staff Sgt. Jess Cunningham, 29, of Bakersfield, California, told the military court at the Army's Rose Barracks that he was on the same patrol as Sgt. Michael Leahy Jr., 28, when the prisoners were bound, blindfolded, shot in the head and dumped in a Baghdad canal in 2007.

Leahy, of Lockport, Ill., is charged with premeditated murder, conspiracy to commit premeditated murder and obstruction of justice. He has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.

Cunningham, who had charges of conspiracy to commit premeditated murder dropped by the Army last week, testified that he was in his Humvee when approached by Leahy, Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Mayo, 27, and Master Sgt. John Hatley, 40.

Hatley then asked if they were ready to kill the prisoners, Cunningham testified. When Cunningham said he would not take part and thought it was wrong, the other three drew their pistols and walked along a canal to where the prisoners were.

About five minutes later, he heard gunfire, he told the court.

"I put my head down. Nothing was said. I knew it was over," he told the jury consisting of eight men and one woman. "I had my head down, I was scared."

Joshua Hartson, who was in the same unit, said he felt the shootings were warranted, but did not take part in the incident.

"I didn't think it was wrong at the time. We're in a combat zone," said Hartson, who has since been dismissed from the Army for medical reasons. "These weren't ordinary guys off the street — they had weapons and were out to kill us."

In testimony during trials and preliminary hearings last year, witnesses offered various versions of an incident in which at least four Iraqis were taken into custody after a shootout with a patrol that included all of the accused soldiers.

Six soldiers involved
The prisoners were taken to the U.S. unit's operating base in Baghdad for questioning and processing, though there wasn't enough evidence to hold them for attacking the unit, according to testimony. Later that night, witnesses said patrol members took the Iraqis to a remote area and shot them in retribution for the attacks against their unit.

In a brief statement, the Army said the identities of the four Iraqis were unknown and their bodies have yet to be found though a search effort is ongoing.

Six soldiers, including Leahy, are accused of involvement in the prisoners' slayings sometime between March 10 and April 16, 2007. All were with the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, which is now part of the Germany-based 172nd Infantry Brigade.

Three soldiers are scheduled for later courts-martial. Sgt. Charles Quigley, 28, of Providence, R.I., faces one charge of conspiracy to commit premeditated murder. Mayo and Hatley are charged with premeditated murder, conspiracy to commit premeditated murder, and obstruction of justice.

Two more soldiers — Spc. Steven Ribordy, 25, of Salina, Kan., and Spc. Belmor Ramos, 23, of Clearfield, Utah — pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy to commit premeditated murder.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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