BAGHDAD -A military panel on 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 spool of detonation wire on one of the bodies to make it look as if the man was an insurgent.
Lawyers for Sandoval said he should be sentenced only for misplacement of public or private property, which carries no more than six months in prison. Prosecutors argued he should be punished for obstruction of justice, which carries a maximum five-year sentence. He will be sentenced on Saturday.
“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. “Today what the panel concluded was justice. This Soldier is not guilty.”
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 of Hayward, Calif., 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.
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 on Thursday 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.”
ROE aside, Soldiers have but a split second to make a life or death decision. I don’t blame the kid, I’d have probably done the same thing. You’re in a shoot or don’t shoot situation in a war where anyone could be a bad guy. Just because a civilian comes toward you with hands up doesn’t mean he won’t have a bomb strapped to his ass. He doesn’t speak English, you don’t speak Arabic. You yell for them to stop, they don’t. You shoot. Simple. In this case there’s a question as to whether or not the civilian “stumbled” onto the sniper’s location, or if it was deliberately approached. In a case such as this, my benefit of the doubt goes to the Soldiers.
More on the “baiting method”:
WASHINGTON – Army snipers hunting insurgents in Iraq were under orders to “bait” their targets with suspicious materials, such as detonation cords, and then kill whoever picked up the items, according to the defense attorney for a Soldier accused of planting evidence on an Iraqi he killed. Gary Myers, an attorney for Sgt. Evan Vela, said Monday his client had acted “pursuant to orders.”
“We believe that our client has done nothing more than he was instructed to do by superiors,” Myers said in a telephone interview.
Myers and Vela’s father, Curtis Carnahan of Idaho Falls, Idaho, said in separate interviews that sworn statements and testimony in the cases of two other accused Ranger snipers indicate that the Army has a classified program that encourages snipers to “bait” potential targets and then kill whoever takes the bait.
The Army on Monday declined to confirm such a program exists.
“To prevent the enemy from learning about our tactics, techniques and training procedures, we don’t discuss specific methods targeting enemy combatants,” said Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman.
Boyce also said there are no classified programs that authorize the murder of Iraqi civilians or the use of “drop weapons” to make killings appeared to be legally justified, which is what Vela and the two other snipers are accused of doing.
The transcript of a court hearing for two of the three accused snipers makes several references to the existence of a classified “baiting” program but provides few details of how it works. A copy of the transcript was provided to The Associated Press by Vela’s father.
The Washington Post, which first reported the existence of the “baiting” program, cited the sworn statement of Capt. Matthew P. Didier, the leader of a Ranger sniper scout platoon.
“Baiting is putting an object out there that we know they will use, with the intention of destroying the enemy,” Didier said in the statement. “Basically, we would put an item out there and watch it. If someone found the item, picked it up and attempted to leave with the item, we would engage the individual as I saw this as a sign they would use the item against U.S. forces.”
The Post said the program was devised by the Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group, which advises commanders on more effective methods in today’s unconventional conflicts, including ways to combat roadside bombs.
I like the method. Bait the bastards and make them come to you. Then, pick them off like a turkey shoot. I’m all for it.