Army sniper convicted of killing unarmed Iraqi civilian, sentenced to 10 years in prison

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AP Photo BAG102, BAG104, BAG106, BAG105

By BRADLEY BROOKS

Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD (AP) -- A military jury on Sunday convicted an Army sniper of murder and sentenced him to 10 years in prison for killing an Iraqi civilian who wandered into the hiding place where six soldiers were sleeping.

Sgt. Evan Vela, 24, was found guilty of murder without premeditation, of aiding and abetting in planting an AK-47 on the dead man's body and of lying to military investigators about the shooting. He had faced a possible life sentence.

Vela showed no emotion when the verdict was read, but he asked the jury for mercy before it broke to decide his sentence. He apologized to the court, the Army and one of the sons of Genei Nasir al-Janabi, the man he shot with a pistol in May.

"When I came to Iraq, I didn't come to do anything wrong," Vela said, reading from a handwritten statement. "I failed my standards, your standards and the standards of the Army. All I can say is I'm sorry and ask for mercy."

Vela has been in confinement in Kuwait since July 1. That time will be credited to his sentence, the judge said. He was also sentenced to forfeit all pay and allowances and will receive a dishonorable discharge. The case was automatically referred to a military appeals court.

Vela's trial was the last of three snipers in the unit accused in a series of shooting deaths south of Baghdad that defense lawyers said happened under command pressure to increase kill counts and, perhaps, employ questionable tactics in doing so.

The Army has declined to confirm that any such program existed, saying it does not discuss tactics used in the field.

Vela and several of his fellow Army snipers testified that they were confused and exhausted after more than two days of trekking in high temperatures through the rough terrain near Iskandariyah, a mostly Sunni Arab city 30 miles south of Baghdad.

On the morning of May 11, the six soldiers had gone to sleep inside their "hide" -- where snipers can observe targets without being seen -- when al-Janabi stumbled upon them, they recounted.

The snipers detained al-Janabi and the man's 17-year-old son Mustafa. They freed the boy, but minutes after he walked off, the commander ordered Vela to shoot the father. The soldiers said al-Janabi was making noise and they feared he was trying to attract the attention of a group of military-age males they thought they saw nearby.

"It's a simple case," said Capt. Jason Nef, one of two military prosecutors. "The reason is because Vela confessed on the stand that he lied. He confessed he killed an unarmed Iraqi."

Vela's lawyer, James Culp, said the case was anything but simple because of the extreme mental and physical fatigue that affected the snipers' actions.

"This was an accident waiting to happen," Culp told the jury of seven men and one woman in his closing argument. "These men were extremely, extremely sleep deprived and nobody was thinking clearly."

After the verdict, Mustafa, who had testified at the court-martial, said he was impressed with the U.S. military court system.

"I find the Americans have more fairness than the Arabs," he said. "Their system is so fair that even if the judge were (Vela's) family member, he would have been convicted."

Mustafa reminded jurors before they began sentence deliberations of the pain he, his mother and five siblings have endured.

"I know this criminal has a family, a wife and children," he said. "Just like they will miss him, we also miss our father. So I hope you will consider that and please not forget about us."

Two other members of Vela's unit were acquitted of murder charges in al-Janabi's shooting or other killings that occurred around the same time.

Jorge G. Sandoval, who was a specialist at the time but had his rank reduced to private as part of his sentencing, was found not guilty in September of killing two unarmed Iraqis in April and May. He was convicted of planting evidence on one of the men.

Sgt. Michael A. Hensley was acquitted of murder in all three deaths, but he was convicted of planting evidence by placing a rifle with al-Janabi's body.

Hensley said the unit had been pressured by his commanders to wrack up kills. His unit had been in Iraq for only a few months and had taken up to 25 casualties without inflicting much damage on insurgents, he said.

"They were tired of people getting killed and us not getting any kills in return," Hensley said. "There was definitely some pressure. If we came back from a mission and we didn't get kills, we were talked to."