A military panel Friday acquitted U.S. Army Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval on charges he killed two unarmed Iraqis, but it convicted him of planting evidence on one of the men in attempt to cover up the shooting.
Sandoval, 22, of Laredo, Texas, had faced five charges in the April and May deaths of two unidentified men. He was found not guilty of the two murder charges, but the panel decided he had placed a detonation wire on one of the bodies to make it look as if the man was an insurgent.
Lawyers for Sandoval, who will be sentenced Saturday, said he should face no more than six months in prison for misplacement of public property, while prosecutors argued he should receive a five-year sentence for obstructing justice.
"Anyone who has been charged with murder for their first kill on the battlefield on the order of his superior and is found not guilty is happy," Capt. Craig Drummond, a defense attorney, said outside court after the verdict.
Soldiers say they were following orders
During the two-day court-martial, Sandoval's colleagues testified they were following orders when they shot the men during two separate incidents on April 27 and May 11.
Spc. Alexander Flores, who was in the same squad as Sandoval on the day of the April killing, testified they were acting on the orders of their platoon leader who said the suspect was "our guy" and ordered them to "move in," which they interpreted as "take the target out."
After the killing, Flores said Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley of Candler, N.C., told him to place a spool of detonation wire on the body and in the man's pocket.
But prosecutors cited an interview with Sandoval immediately after his arrest in which he said he planted the wire. Outside court, Flores stood by his testimony.
"He was just doing his job, as he was told. It's not his fault," said Flores, who, along with the rest of Sandoval's sniper platoon, greeted him with hugs and well wishes.
Unarmed man killed
In the May shooting, Sgt. Evan Vela of Rigby, Idaho, said Hensley told him to shoot the man, who had stumbled upon their snipers' hide-out, although he was not armed and had his hands in the air when he approached the soldiers.
"He (Hensley) asked me if I was ready. I had the pistol out. I heard the word shoot. I don't remember pulling the trigger. It took me a second to realize that the shot came from the pistol in my hand," Vela testified, crying.
Vela said that as the Iraqi man was convulsing on the ground, "Hensley kind of laughed about it and hit the guy on the throat and said shoot again."
"After he (the Iraqi man) was shot, Hensley pulled an AK-47 out of his rucksack and said, 'This is what we are going to say happened,"' said Vela, who testified under a deal that bars his account of events from being used against him when he goes to trial. Sandoval also was acquitted Friday of charges he planted the weapon on the second man's body.
Vela and Hensley are both charged in the case and will be tried separately.
The three soldiers are part of the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.
Vela's lawyer, Gary Myers, alleged this week that Army snipers hunting insurgents in Iraq were under orders to "bait" their targets with suspicious materials, such as detonation cords, then kill those who picked up the items. He said his client was acting on "orders."
Asked about the existence of the "baiting program," Drummond said it was unclear "what programs were going on out there and when," especially "if there were things that were done that made the rules of engagement not clear."