A soldier who faced the death penalty on charges he killed five service members at a military mental health clinic in Baghdad reached a plea agreement with the Army last week and is expected in court today at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The Army’s announcement of the agreement and coming court date signaled the end of a four-year effort to bring Sgt. John Russell, 48, of Sherman, Texas, to trial for allegedly killing Navy Cmdr. Charles Springle and the Army’s Maj. Matthew Houseal, Sgt. Christian Bueno-Galdos, Spc. Jacob Barton and Pfc. Michael Yates Jr. on May 11, 2009.
The charges marked the worst case of fratricide in the Iraq war. They also tested the military’s mental health system because of Russell’s documented efforts to get help for suicidal and homicidal thoughts in Iraq on his third combat deployment.
James Culp, Russell’s civilian defense attorney, did not respond to requests for comment from The Olympian and The News Tribune on Friday. He confirmed to Reuters that Russell will plead guilty to the murder charges today.
The Army did not characterize the plea agreement. It published a news release Friday stating Russell will be in court for a plea hearing.
Russell had been scheduled to be in court last week for jury selection. That was postponed when lawyers started focusing on the plea agreement.
Sworn statements obtained by The Olympian and The News Tribune suggest Russell snapped when he felt he was being mistreated by health care providers at Camp Liberty in Baghdad.
At the time, he was serving with a Germany-based combat engineer unit. He’s on trial at Lewis-McChord because his unit in Iraq fell under the command of one from the base south of Tacoma.
His unit sent him to the clinic on May 8, 2009, after six days of mood swings. He felt slighted by two officers who he believed did not take him seriously, according to court documents.
“He felt that everyone had lost hope in him and no one wanted him around,” Lt. David Vasquez, Russell’s company commander, said in a sworn statement.
Russell underwent a year of mental health treatment after the killings before he was found fit to stand trial. A doctor later diagnosed him with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to court documents.
Culp has cited the diagnosis as one reason for the Army to drop the death penalty and instead pursue a life sentence.
“Do we kill someone who is suffering from two severe mental defects when he snaps and does something in a combat zone? I think the answer is no,” Culp told The News Tribune last year.
The long wait for the trial has frustrated families of Russell’s alleged victims.
“It’s just not justified. There’s really no good reason,” Springle’s brother, Tom, told Stars and Stripes last month. “We’ve waited long enough.”Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/military