When a Soldier Murders: Steven Green Gets Life

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Mark Humphrey / AP

Steven Dale Green is escorted to the courthouse on the third day of his trial in Paducah, Ky.

Just over three years and two months ago, Steven Green raped 14-year-old Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi and murdered her, her parents and her 6-year-old sister in the family's isolated farmhouse 20 miles south of Baghdad. On May 21, after deliberating about a death sentence for 10 hours over two days, a jury of nine women and three men in the U.S. District Court in Paducah, Ky., declared they could not come to a unanimous decision. As a result, Green will receive an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole.

The sentence marks the final legal chapter in one of the most notorious crimes committed by U.S. service members during the Iraq war. The case is a flash point in Iraq, where many locals quoted in news reports have said death would be the only acceptable sentence. To represent her country's point, the Iraqi Minister of Human Rights attended the first day of the trial. Darren Wolff, a Louisville, Ky., lawyer in private practice who helped defend Green, said international opinions should not be relevant to the pursuit of justice. In a written statement after the sentence became known, Wolff said, "We are pleased the jury did not bow to those politically motivated pressures." (Read a story on whether Iraq should prosecute U.S. soldiers.)

On March 12, 2006, Private First Class Green and three fellow soldiers got drunk on Iraqi whiskey at a lightly defended checkpoint in one of the country's most dangerous regions. Harboring a hatred of the locals that stemmed from heavy losses their platoon had sustained, Green and his co-conspirators hit upon a plan as savage as it was outrageous. Donning long black underwear disguises they called "ninja suits," they slipped away unnoticed from their post and ventured to a house several hundred meters away, where they jumped the family living there. Three of the four soldiers, including Green, raped Abeer, and Green shot all four family members at point-blank range. The soldiers returned to their checkpoint undetected, and for months afterward, the U.S. Army and most of the locals attributed the massacre to the frequent Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence that engulfed the region at the time.

After a lower-enlisted Army whistle-blower who had learned indirectly about U.S. involvement in the crime came forward, Green's three co-conspirators were convicted in military courts, all receiving sentences of 90 years or longer. But because Green had already been discharged (for reasons unrelated to the crime), he was tried in civilian court. It was the first time a former soldier had faced trial — and the possible death penalty — in such a jurisdiction for his actions in a war zone. On May 7, he was found guilty of 16 counts of murder, rape and related charges.

For a week and a half, lawyers presented evidence, testimony and arguments to the same jury that convicted Green about whether his crimes warranted death or life in prison without parole. In closing arguments, federal prosecutor Brian Skaret focused on the barbarity of the acts. Displaying gory crime-scene photos of the slaughtered family, Skaret emphasized that Green alone bore responsibility for shooting the two adults and two children and said that Green must pay for that choice with his life. The defense repeatedly asserted that the Army must shoulder some blame because it did not heed warning signs about Green's instability. In response, Skaret declared, "They have tried to paint Mr. Green as a victim, but we know who the real victims are. This is not about leadership. This is not about the stress of warfare. This is about heinous crimes inflicted upon innocent civilians."

"There is no excuse for what Steven Green did," defense attorney Scott Wendelsdorf conceded during his closing, "but there is an explanation," which, he argued, made Green's living the rest of his life in jail without possibility of parole a more just punishment. Summarizing the horrific conditions Green's unit lived and fought under, the breakdowns in leadership it experienced and the fact that Green's superiors knew he was obsessed with killing Iraqi civilians yet kept him on the front lines, Wendelsdorf said, "The United States of America failed Steven Green. And that would not amount to a hill of beans if the United States weren't trying to put him to death now." He ended his remarks by thundering, "America does not kill its broken warriors! Spare this boy. For God's sake, spare him." At least one juror heeded that exhortation.

Jim Frederick, a former editor at TIME, is writing a book about Green's unit, 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.