There’s no question Sgt. John Russell killed five of his fellow military service members four years ago at a Baghdad combat stress clinic. He already pleaded guilty to shooting a Navy commander and four soldiers in the worst case of fratricide of the Iraq War.
The amount of time Russell will spend in jail for the deaths hangs, however, on a different matter: Whether he knew what he was doing on the day he worked his way through the clinic, shooting at anyone he saw.
Attempts to answer the question of what was going on in Russell’s head in May 2009 started to play out Monday in court at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where Russell, 48, could be sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murders.
His attorneys spent more than four hours working to persuade Army judge Col. David Conn to consider conclusions from a University of Pennsylvania psychologist who wrote a report suggesting Russell showed “abnormalities” in head scans that suggest some brain trauma.
They’re building a case that Russell did not have complete control of his actions because he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression when he shot to death Navy Cmdr. Charles Springle and the Army’s Maj. Matthew Houseal, Sgt. Christian Bueno-Galdos, Spc. Jacob Barton and Pfc. Michael Yates Jr.
Russell says he shot the men “in a rage” after a frustrating encounter with a psychiatrist left him feeling as if the doctor wanted him to kill himself. He had expressed suicidal thoughts that week.
But prosecutors counter that Russell had more than enough time to “coolly reflect” on the violence he wanted to exact on the clinic when he realized doctors would not send him home early from his third deployment to Iraq.
“This is not a case about rage,” Lt. Col. Robert Stelle argued. “This is a case about revenge, payback.”
The big questions about how PTSD and past trauma might have influenced Russell have not yet been aired fully in court.
On Monday, Stelle focused on the time Russell had to calm down from his emotional encounter with psychiatrist Lt. Col. Michael Jones at Camp Liberty and Russell’s return to the clinic more than an hour later.
Once there, Russell had a cigarette inside a Ford Explorer he seized from the soldier who was escorting him to the clinic that day. He then skirted the building to avoid a gate where he would have had to give up a rifle he took from his guard.
Houseal was his first victim; Springle his second. He got the three junior soldiers when they were trying to hide from him or flee.
Russell shot Bueno-Galdos in the side.
“Oh God, oh God, oh God,” Bueno-Galdos said, according to a witness who survived.
Then Russell shot Bueno-Galdos in the face, killing him.
Russell “made choices,” Stelle said.
Prosecutors called Russell’s guard, retired Staff Sgt. Enos Richard, as their first witness. Richard narrated a video he filmed showing the route he drove when he took Russell from their headquarters at Baghdad’s Camp Stryker to the combat stress clinic at Camp Liberty.
Richard’s testimony showed multiple intersections where Russell could have made a wrong turn, and the video demonstrated the drive took about 30 minutes or more.
Richard said Russell appeared angry when he left his appointment with Jones. The doctor and patient appeared to shout at each other, he said.
Russell seized Richard’s M16 when they got back to their headquarters at Camp Stryker. Russell pointed the rifle at Richard and demanded the keys to the SUV. Richard complied when he became convinced that Russell was serious.
“I looked into his face and he had no expression, no emotions in his face,” Richard said.
Russell’s court-martial is expected to run at least into next week. About a dozen relatives of his victims sat in court for the first day of the trial. Springle’s son, Marine Sgt. Charles Springle, wore his dress uniform.
Russell was serving in a Germany-based combat engineer company in Iraq. His court-martial is taking place at the base south of Tacoma because his unit fell under the command of a Lewis-McChord brigade in Iraq.