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Fox News Channel, February 17, 2008

The Sgt. Evan Vela case

Fox News Network, February 17, 2008, Sunday


HANNITY: An investigation into U.S. military actions and tactics in Iraq has resulted in guilty convictions for members of an army sniper unit. Prosecutors argue that these soldiers should be held accountable for the murder of an innocent Iraqi man. But many are condemning the ruling, saying that crucial evidence was not considered, and equal justice not handed down. Ainsley Earhardt investigates the case of army sergeant Evan Vela.


JACK NICHOLSON, ACTOR: You can't handle the truth!

AINSLEY EARHARDT, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice over): In the movie "A Few Good Men," two Marines were dishonorably discharged after following orders in a high-level conspiracy.

NICHOLSON: Son, we live in a world that has walls and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.

EARHARDT: Today, an army sniper in Iraq will also be dishonorably discharged and sentenced for murder after following orders from his superior. On May 11th, 2007, five members of the sniper's section of the first battalion 500 first infantry regiment, were stationed near Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad, conducting counter insurgency operation, then one of the most dangerous parts in Iraq.

They unit would hike at night with 150 pounds of gear, crossing extremely difficult terrain to reach their final destination before dawn. On their fourth day, deep in enemy territory, the sleep deprived five-man unit decided to hole up in a secret hideout to get a few hours of rest. Each person one would stay awake, guarding the others while they slept.

Then, it was Sergeant Evan Vela's turn. Despite his efforts to remain awake, Vela fell asleep. He awoke to an Iraqi man standing just a few feet from their hideout. The entire unit was caught off guard.

According to court documents, the man in charge, Staff Sergeant Michael A. Hensley, ordered three of the five men out of the area surrounding that hidden sniper hole, not including Vela. Hensley then ordered Vela to kill the Iraqi because his could draw militants to their site, possibly compromising their mission and their lives. Members of this team were later charged for various crimes involving the shooting death of the Iraqi man.

(on camera): Dr. David Baden, how did you first get started in this case?

DR. DAVID BADEN, FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST: I was called by the defense lawyers because there was an issue to how many gun shot wounds struck this individual. There was no autopsy. We had to base the opinion on photographs like this. The issue was, did they shoot him once or twice? And looking at this photo and other photographs, there's an exit perforation on the right side of the head, an entrance on the left side and no other gun shot wounds. That was a big issue when I was called, because he military forensic pathologist had advised the prosecutor that there were two gunshot wounds.

EARHARDT (voice over): Famed forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden was retained by the defense and testified that physical factors influenced his decision and clouded his judgment to shoot when ordered by his superior.

BADEN: Vela had been up for 72-hours with three hours of sleep, 110 to 120 degree temperature. And from a medical point of view, he was mentally so impaired by lack of sleep, by lack of fluids, by electrolyte disorder, by heat stroke that there was no way he could make an independent judgment.

EARHARDT: Sleep experts say that the most obvious effects of sleep deprivation are decreased performance and alertness, memory and cognitive impairment and short-term memory loss, all of that experienced by Sergeant Evan Vela according to Dr. Baden.

BADEN: I think that in this instance, not only was he massively sleep deprived, but he couldn't get his body to function because of dehydration. And he was zombie-like in appearance as the way he was described. There was no way that he could make independent decision as to whether or not to disobey his superior officer.

EARHARDT: The man in charge of the sniper team, Staff Sergeant Michael Hensley, received the lightest punishment and was demoted to rank of sergeant. Sergeant Evan Vela received the harshest punishment. He was found guilty of murder without pre-meditation and sentenced to 10 years and will be dishonorably discharged. He's already served close to a year in an American detention facility in the Middle East and will serve out the remainder of his sentence in a United States prison.


HANNITY: Ainsley, these stories really break my heart and bother me because it's so easy to second-guess. It's so easy to Monday morning quarterback when these guys are out in the field, their lives are on the line. It seems we don't take that into account.

EARHARDT: Yes. That's why Sergeant Vela had such a great defense here, Sean. This guy is 24 years old, fighting for our rights, our freedoms here in America. He's over there, face-to-face with the enemy and he pulls the trigger and now his life is changed forever.

HANNITY: What's amazing about this is he was ordered by his superior for what seems like a reasonable and plausible, you know, explanation that they give here that their actions that if this man were to live or if he wasn't captured and held, it would draw militants to the site compromise their mission, and put the lives of so many other soldiers in jeopardy. And they are at war. It seems we forget what warfare is about sometimes.

EARHARDT: Apparently, they have to follow their orders unless it is unlawful. And in this situation, it was an unarmed civilian, therefore it was unlawful. But Dr. Baden says that in New York City, a law enforcement officer might come face-to-face with someone on the street. He might not have a weapon but if they feel like their lives are in jeopardy, they have the right to fire their guns.

HANNITY: Right, but -

EARHARDT: But in military, it's different though.

HANNITY: If that's the case, then why isn't the staff sergeant Hensley, who's the one that ordered this soldier to shoot, ends up with a slap on the wrist.

EARHARDT: It seems unfair and I asked Dr. Baden that question. I said, "What kind of guy is this? What is the staff sergeant demoted to sergeant. What is he really like? What was he like he took the stand?"

He said he was very remorseful, upstanding man, even fabricated the story to make it look like it was his fault. He didn't want his soldiers to get in trouble.

HANNITY: All right. Ainsley, terrific report, as always. Thank you for being with us.

EARHARDT: Absolutely.