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Iraq Transition

Soldier: 'Death walk' drives troops 'nuts'

Iraq rape-murder hearing ends with focus on ex-soldier, stress

A girl is said to have been raped and her family killed by U.S. soldiers Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad, in March.


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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Defense attorneys in a military rape-murder hearing on Tuesday emphasized the stress defendants faced, with one private testifying that soldiers consumed whiskey and painkillers to try to cope with duty in Iraq.

Four soldiers are charged in connection with the rape of an Iraqi and the killing of her and her family.

In closing arguments, their attorneys highlighted the adverse conditions in Iraq and pointed the finger at a fifth defendant who has left the Army and is facing charges in civilian court.

Prosecutors, however, attempted to lay blame squarely on the soldiers.

"Murder, not war. Rape, not war. That's what we're here talking about today. Not all that business about cold food, checkpoints, personnel assignments," Capt. Alex Pickands said as he began his closing argument. "Cold food didn't kill that family. Personnel assignments didn't rape and murder that 14-year-old little girl."

Capt. Elizabeth Walker, attorney for Sgt. Paul Cortez, 23, reminded the investigating officer that "these are soldiers, not robots. They are humans with emotions and a command structure that hung them out to dry."

Cortez; Spc. James Barker, 23; Pfc. Jesse V. Spielman, 21; and Pfc. Bryan L. Howard, 19, face charges in connection with the deaths in Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad, on March 12. (Watch as witnesses detail troops' drinking and rape plan -- 1:54)

The Article 32 hearing, which began Sunday, concluded Tuesday. The investigating officer, Col. Dwight Warren, will now decide whether there is enough evidence to move ahead with court-martial proceedings and on what charges.

Warren's report will likely be at least a few days in coming; the accused soldiers could face the death penalty if convicted of murder or conspiracy to commit murder.

Former Pfc. Steven Green, who was discharged from the Army in May due to an "anti-social personality disorder" and returned to the United States, is facing rape and murder charges in a civilian federal court. He has pleaded not guilty.

A sixth soldier, Sgt. Anthony W. Yribe, has been charged with failing to report the alleged rape and killings but is not alleged to have been a participant.

All six men are from the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

The Mahmoudiya inquiry is one of several examples of atrocities allegedly committed by U.S. troops in Iraq being investigated.

Iraqi authorities have identified the girl who was raped and shot to death as Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi. Her father, mother and 5-year-old sister were also killed, and the 14-year-old's body was set on fire after she was killed.

"They gathered over cards and booze to come up with a plan to rape and murder that little girl," Pickands said. "She was young and attractive. They knew where she was because they had seen her on a previous patrol. She was close. She was vulnerable."

On Monday, Army investigator Benjamin Bierce testified that Barker told authorities the soldiers were drinking whiskey, playing cards and hitting golf balls when Green brought up the idea of raping the girl.

Sometime during the assault, Barker said, he heard gunshots come from a bedroom, where the girl's parents and sister had been taken, and an agitated Green emerged saying he had killed them, Bierce said.

Bierce also testified that Barker admitted pouring kerosene from a lamp on the girl's body, although it was unclear from the testimony who set the girl on fire.

David Sheldon, a civilian and one of Barker's defense attorneys, focused his arguments almost exclusively on Green, whom he called "disturbed" and like "a canister of gas waiting to explode."

"Everyone knew Green made outrageous statements," he said. "There was no meeting of the minds. That was a plan that Pfc. Green executed, and the soldiers are not responsible."

Walker and other attorneys also questioned tactics used by criminal investigators in getting statements from soldiers and whether the defendants had lawyers present.

Killings 'crushed the platoon'

Several defense attorneys recalled testimony about the stressful and dangerous conditions the soldiers faced and the low morale that resulted.

"Everybody was very depressed," a colleague of the defendants, Pfc. Justin Cross, testified Tuesday, adding the drinking was an "outlet."

"I couldn't sleep mainly for fear we would be attacked," he said. "It drives you nuts. You feel like every step you might get blown up. ... You're just walking a death walk."

Soldiers first told of killing a raped teenager and her family during stress counseling after two other members of their unit were kidnapped from a checkpoint and killed.

The killings of the soldiers "pretty much crushed the platoon," said Cross.

The Army's surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, said last month that deployments in Iraq put heavy mental stress on troops and that some will need counseling. (Watch how the Army is trying to fight battlefield stress -- 2:21)

Pickands, however, talked in closing arguments about the soldiers' plan to use Howard as a lookout. And he pointed to Green, who on several occasions had voiced his hatred for Iraqis, as the killer.

Testimony from several witnesses was unflattering to Green. One witness said he was considered a thief and a liar; another agreed he was troubled and angry.

Soldiers told a story of Green setting fire to a puppy and throwing it off the roof of a building.

One of Yribe's attorneys, Capt. Juan Roman, said if Yribe was facing charges for failing to report the crime, then others should also be charged -- specifically Pfc. Justin Watt, who testified earlier in the week.

"Consider evidence," Roman said. "There is not enough to put forward for a court-martial."

Attorneys for Barker, Cortez, Howard and Spielman filed a motion for a new hearing and asked that their clients' cases be separated from Yribe's.

They claimed questions to witnesses regarding incriminating evidence against their clients showed Yribe, through his attorney, had essentially become a member of the prosecution team.

"Let there be no mistake," prosecutor Capt. William Fischbach said of the defendants. "They knew what they were doing."

From media pool reports.

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