A court-martial panel on Friday found a U.S. soldier not guilty in the killing of an unarmed Iraqi during a raid on a suspected insurgent hideout last year.
Sgt. 1st Class Trey Corrales' friends and family erupted in cheers when the head of the military panel, or jury, read the verdict.
The jury of nine soldiers acquitted Corrales of all three charges, including premeditated murder, after more than seven hours of deliberation.
Corrales would have faced a minimum sentence of life in prison if he had been convicted.
Corrales said it feels like a 200-pound weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
'Long time coming'
"I felt confident. I know this is going to sound weird but I wasn't surprised," Corrales said. "But it was just a long time coming."
Corrales' wife, Lily, told their daughter Victoria, 7, "Your daddy's free! He's OK" moments after the verdict was read.
The sergeant held his 10-year-old son, Trey II, in a long embrace.
Corrales, 35, admitted to shooting the man after his platoon burst into a house in the village of Al Saheed near Kirkuk last June. The platoon was looking for insurgents they suspected of firing at U.S. helicopters and planting roadside bombs.
Rules of engagement
But Corrales argued the killing fell within the rules of engagement governing the use of deadly force. He pleaded not guilty to all three charges.
The prosecution argued the Army platoon sergeant deliberately shot and killed the man after he was subdued and securely in the custody of U.S. soldiers. Prosecutors said Corrales told the man to run and then shot him.
But Frank Spinner, Corrales' defense lawyer, cast doubt on the credibility of the prosecution witnesses and said the government failed to prove the bullets from Corrales' M4 killed the man.
"There are pieces of the puzzle that are missing," Spinner said during his closing argument. He said the prosecution failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Spinner said Corrales fired his weapon because he reasonably believed the man posed a threat to the platoon.
"This was a dynamic environment, an intense mission and he believed he was acting to protect his men," Spinner said.
The incident came about 11 months into a 15-month deployment for Corrales' 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division based at Hawaii's Schofield Barracks.