Civilian Trial Begins for Ex–Iraq Soldier

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Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office / AP

With its dark wood benches, plush blue carpeting and rich ornamental details, the second-floor courtroom of the U.S. District Court in Paducah, Ky., is half a world away from Iraq's hardscrabble Triangle of Death. But in a trial that opened here on Monday, Steven Green, a former private first class from the 101st Airborne Division, stands accused of crimes committed there, one the worst atrocities believed to have been carried out by U.S. forces during the war.

Three previous trials have established this much: on March 12, 2006, a small group of junior soldiers slipped away unnoticed from a lightly defended traffic checkpoint just outside the insurgent-infested town of Yusufiyah, 20 miles south of Baghdad. Nursing a hatred of Iraqis stemming from heavy losses their unit had suffered, and fueled by several bottles of Iraqi whisky, they embarked upon a premeditated crime of gruesome barbarity. Donning black long-underwear outfits as disguises, even though it was the middle of the day, they traveled a few hundred meters to an isolated farmhouse where they gang-raped Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi, a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, and murdered her, her parents and her 6-year-old sister. The men returned to their checkpoint unnoticed, and for months afterward, the massacre was considered by the Army and locals alike to be just another outburst of the frequent Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence that plagued the area.

Three soldiers from that murderous expedition have already been tried by court-martial for their roles in the crimes. All were found guilty and all were sentenced to jail terms of 90 years or longer. But because Green, whom the three other soldiers have described as both the plot's mastermind and trigger man, was discharged before the full extent of the crimes was discovered, he is being tried in a civilian court, where federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. He faces 17 counts of conspiracy, rape, murder, unlawful use of a weapon and obstruction of justice. (See TIME's story on another Iraqi killing spree, in Haditha.)

In opening statements, federal prosecutor Brian Skaret emphasized the barbarity of the slaughter, focusing almost exclusively on the events of March 12, and Green's alleged role in it. In the opposing opening statement, however, defense lawyer Patrick Bouldin called attention to what he called "the context of the tragedy." Although Green is pleading not guilty to all charges, Bouldin did not explicitly affirm his client's innocence during his remarks, emphasizing instead to the jury that the events of March 12 cannot be fully understood without appreciating the horrific conditions that Green's platoon labored under, the breakdown in leadership that it suffered and the clear, repeated warning signs of Green's instability that his superiors routinely ignored. (Read "Should Iraq Prosecute U.S. Soldiers?")

But getting a civilian jury to believe that the frequently dehumanizing extremes of life in a war zone can be mitigating factors for even the most heinous of crimes will be one of the defense team's greatest challenges. Green is the first former soldier to face trial — and the possible death penalty — in a civilian court for conduct during war. And, during the first day of trial, Green's lawyers clearly felt forced to assume a pedagogical role that would not be necessary with a military jury. They described not just the psychological toll that constant battle can take but even the most rudimentary military basics, like how many soldiers an infantry staff sergeant leads and how many platoons are in a company.

Over the past year, Green's lawyers have filed several motions challenging the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) of 2000 and 2004, a law designed to close the loophole that enabled military contractors or the spouses of servicemen and servicewomen to escape punishment for crimes committed abroad. Green's lawyers (as well as several military-law experts) have maintained that MEJA was never intended to cover cases like his, but, in August, U.S. District Judge Thomas Russell upheld its constitutionality. Green has offered to re-enlist in the Army and face a court-martial, but that request has also been denied.

Where Green is tried could be a matter of his life and death. While the Army punishes murderers severely, it has rarely executed soldiers in the post–World War II era; the last time it did was in 1961. Green's lawyers have thus maintained that it is fundamentally unfair that their client faces a much harsher potential penalty than his already convicted co-conspirators, for whom the Army did not seek death and who will be eligible for parole in 10 years. The day before the trial began, federal prosecutors asked the judge to have this line of argument barred from the court, saying it risked biasing the jury because, they wrote in their motion, of "our sense of indebtedness to the service and sacrifice of our fighting men and women." Green's trial is expected to last three to six weeks, and if a death penalty is handed down, an already notorious war crime may well become even more so.

Jim Frederick, a former editor atTIME, is writing a book about Green's unit, titled Black Hearts: One Platoon's Disintegration in the Triangle of Death and the American Ordeal in Iraq, which is to be published in spring 2010 by Harmony Books.