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Ex-soldier gets life for Iraqi murders
Updated 5/22/2009 6:42 AM ET
PADUCAH, Ky. — Former Army private first class Steven Green will serve life in a U.S. prison for what a federal prosecutor called "unthinkable and outrageous" crimes against civilians in Iraq.

The nine-woman, three-man jury convicted Green on May 7 of raping and killing 14-year-old Abeer Qassim al-Janabi, then shooting her parents and 5-year-old sister to death on March 12, 2006.

The jurors deliberated over two days on his sentence but couldn't agree unanimously Thursday on life or death, which Justice Department prosecutor Brian Skaret had urged. That means Green will get a life term when sentenced formally Sept. 4.

The murders took place in Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad in an area where some of the country's worst insurgent violence was then unfolding.

Green, 24, is among a handful of former servicemembers prosecuted under a 2000 law that allows the government to bring charges in a federal civilian court for crimes committed overseas while in uniform. The first former U.S. soldier to face the death penalty before a civilian jury for a wartime crime, Green was honorably discharged for a personality disorder before his role in the crimes was discovered.

The trial, which began April 27, was held in Paducah because Green was deployed with the 101st Airborne Division, based at nearby Fort Campbell.

REACTION: Iraqis say ex-U.S. soldier should be put to death VIDEO: More on the Steven Green case

Three other soldiers involved pleaded guilty in military courts-martial in exchange for lesser sentences after agreeing to testify against Green.

Green's sentence closes the case on one of the worst war crimes committed by U.S. forces or contractors in Iraq. The atrocity in Mahmoudiya may not pack the political wallop that the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison did, but it ranks with other infamous incidents in Iraq, military experts say. Among them: the 2005 killings of 24 unarmed civilians in Haditha, in which charges — later dropped — were brought against eight Marines.

"This case shows how a single incident perpetrated by one person can distort an entire worldview of how the war was carried out," says Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank. Still, "Abu Ghraib was more serious because it was a systematic breakdown. In the case of Mr. Green, it's an act of gross criminality by a handful of people."

Compared with troops in draft-era wars, today's all-volunteer force is "more disciplined, more restrained than any other military in the world," Thompson says. "When you consider the stress ... the American military has comported itself in Iraq better than in Vietnam, Korea" or the world wars.

"Anytime you give high-powered weapons to 19- and 20-year-olds, bad things are bound to happen occasionally," says Gary Solis, a former Marine judge who teaches the laws of war at the U.S. Military Academy. "It's true in every war."

Solis says Green is "not representative" of most servicemembers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. "The reporting is so much greater today that it may raise the impression that combatants are committing more crimes. I don't believe that's true. It's just that we are more aware of it. We didn't have the CNN factor in Vietnam that these soldiers have."

Solis was called as an expert witness by Green's defense team, which argued that his life should be spared because the crimes resulted in part from poor leadership and neglect by Army officers. Solis testified that combat stress can impair any soldier's judgment and degrade the strong leadership needed to prevent war crimes.

Army records show Green had told a combat-stress counselor that he wanted to avenge the deaths of several comrades. He was cleared for combat, although he was diagnosed with "homicidal ideations" and prescribed a mood-regulating drug.

Three months later, according to military court records, he and three other soldiers drank black-market Iraqi whiskey, slipped away from their post and entered a home they knew from earlier patrols. One soldier stood guard while Green and two others allegedly took turns raping the teenager. Green allegedly killed Abeer's mother, father and younger sister before shooting Abeer in the head and burning her body.

Besides triggering international outrage against U.S. forces in Iraq, the murders drew attention to lax recruiting standards that allowed Green to join the Army. The Midland, Texas, native was a high school dropout who had several misdemeanor convictions when he enlisted just days after serving four days in jail on an alcohol-possession charge. Green was one of 5,506 soldiers granted conduct waivers in 2005, a time when the military struggled to meet recruiting goals.

"In order to meet quotas, it was considered necessary to lower standards," Solis says. "That always brings a price."

Green's lawyers had urged the jury to sentence him to life in prison instead of death because he came from a broken home and suffered a brain injury in Iraq.

"America does not kill its broken warriors," defense lawyer Scott Wendelsdorf said in a closing statement Wednesday. "Spare this broken boy, for God's sake."

Wolfson reports for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. Stone reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: The Associated Press

Posted 5/21/2009 5:45 PM ET
Updated 5/22/2009 6:42 AM ET
Steven Green on Thursday left the courthouse in Paducah, Ky. through a back entrance.
By Daniel Patmore, AP
Steven Green on Thursday left the courthouse in Paducah, Ky. through a back entrance.