TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - An American soldier charged with the 2009 killing of five fellow servicemen in Iraq was at risk of suicide and was provoked by a military psychiatrist who failed to properly treat him, his lawyer said in court on Wednesday.
A likely defense strategy formulated by attorneys for Army Sergeant John Russell, 48, came into sharper focus during the second day of a pre-trial hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Washington, where Russell faces a court-martial next month on capital murder charges.
Much of the focus was on an Army psychiatrist, Dr. Michael Jones, a lieutenant colonel at a military counseling center in Iraq who talked to Russell briefly on May 11, 2009, and then chased Russell when he fled the clinic near Baghdad airport.
Russell is accused of returning to the center the same day and shooting dead two medical staff officers and three soldiers who happened to be there.
He faces five charges of premeditated murder, one charge of aggravated assault and one charge of attempted murder in connection with the shooting.
Russell's attorneys have argued that their client, who was attached to the 54th Engineer Battalion based in Bamberg, Germany, had sought treatment at the Camp Liberty Stress Center because he was suicidal, but that Jones was dismissive.
"Jones is the provocateur. He turned a mental health issue of a suicide into a homicide," said Russell's lawyer James Culp during the proceedings on Wednesday.
"This case is about, at the minimum, provocation," said Culp, who added that Russell was "gravely ill" on the day of the killings.
A motion filed in November by Russell's attorneys indicated that he had met with Jones for only minutes before Russell told the psychiatrist, "You are either going to help me, or I am going to kill myself."
Jones responded by leaning his head close to Russell's face and said, "Poof, you're fixed," according to an account in the court papers filed by Russell's attorneys.
Russell then stormed out of the office, as Jones chased him and yelled for military police assistance, the motion stated.
Russell served five combat tours and three years in Iraq.
APPEARANCE BY PHONE
At the pre-trial hearing defense attorneys asked the judge, Colonel David Conn, to allow them to present evidence to the military jury panel in April about Jones' history of alcohol and drug use.
Jones, who lives in Missouri, testified on the phone for about five minutes on Wednesday and revealed that he had agreed to be deposed next week at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
A military dentist, Lieutenant Colonel Minaxi Patel, testified on Wednesday that Jones had dismissed her concerns when she sought counseling in Iraq for stress and depression after her sister was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
But Captain Dan Mazzone, one of four Army prosecutors assigned to the case, argued that Russell's attorneys were trying to deflect attention from his acts of violence.
"At best, what happened is that the accused was taunted by Dr. Jones," Mazzone said. "Jones was not killed, so there's no transfer of provocation."
The Russell case comes at a sensitive time for the Lewis-McChord base, one of the Army's largest.
It is also the home base of Robert Bales, who is accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers last March and is scheduled to face a court-martial in September.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Jackie Frank)
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