U.S. Army sniper on
trial in Baghdad
The sergeant's lawyer says
three deaths were justified. The military denies planting weapons to
draw Iraqi targets.
By Ned Parker
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
November 7, 2007
BAGHDAD — The murder trial of an Army sniper has begun days
after the military court rejected a request from the soldier's
lawyer to use classified material as part of his defense.
The trial of Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley started Tuesday amid
denials from the military that his unit had been involved in a
"baiting" program in which soldiers allegedly planted weapons and
other material and shot Iraqis who tried to pick them up.
The focus on Hensley's unit has raised questions about whether his
team had run amok or whether their commanders had bent rules to push
them to rack up more "kills" in spring as a new U.S.-led security
plan took hold.
Hensley's lawyer said the sniper was not guilty of fatally shooting
three Iraqis in separate incidents in April and May. His attorney
said the incidents, in a violent area south of Baghdad, were
Allegations of a baiting program have dogged the case since an
investigation in the summer unearthed a sworn statement by a former
platoon leader saying the Pentagon's Asymmetric Warfare Group
suggested in January that his snipers plant ammunition, C4
explosives and components, and then shoot anyone who picked them up.
Pretrial hearings in July for Hensley and then-Spc. Jorge Sandoval
Jr. detailed how snipers from the 25th Infantry Division's 1st
Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, believed they had permission to
carry materials for a classified program. Sandoval was acquitted on
murder charges in September but demoted to private and is serving a
44-day sentence for planting a weapon on a corpse.
In a sworn statement June 23, the former platoon leader, Lt. Matthew
Didier, who has been promoted to captain, said the Asymmetric
Warfare Group visited his unit in January and asked about placing
weapons at locations believed to be favored by insurgents near
Iskandariya, south of Baghdad.
Didier quoted those officials as saying they would talk to
commanders about the plan. "A few days later the Battalion
Operations officer came to us with items (fake detonation cord, C-4,
wires, AK-47 rounds, AK-47 magazines) we could place in or around
known cache areas or likely cache spots," Didier said in his
statement, obtained by The Times. "If we happened to see the
individuals take the items we would engage the enemy to destroy an
Hensley's attorney, Capt. Daniel Kicza, on Tuesday refused to
comment on the alleged baiting program.
But in July, in pretrial hearings, Kicza said the baiting issue was
"essential" to proving his client's innocence.
On Saturday, Kicza suffered a setback when the military court denied
his pretrial motion to present unspecified classified materials
"There was a determination that there was in fact classified
information, but that the judge ruled the classified information was
neither relevant or necessary," said Capt. Madeline Yanford, a
lawyer with the military court.
Yanford and a military intelligence officer assigned to the court,
Capt. Stacie Miller, told The Times that no baiting program existed
and references to it were mistaken.
In Washington, senior military officials have refused to directly
address the baiting allegations in current court cases. However,
they have denied there were any classified programs to plant weapons
and target Iraqis.
Members of the disbanded sniper unit have said they were under
pressure to get kills in the area south of Baghdad. Hensley, who won
an Army-wide sniper competition in 2002, was assigned to the unit in
spring. On his first mission, the team recorded its first five
The ruling in Hensley's case could also be crucial in Sgt. Evan
Vela's defense. Vela faces murder charges in the May 11 shooting of
an Iraqi man, one of the three deaths for which Hensley is being
tried. Vela testified at Sandoval's trial that he shot the Iraqi
twice in the head on Hensley's orders. Hensley has said the man was
shot in self-defense.
Vela's attorney James Culp has made it clear he too believes the
baiting question is crucial.
"I don't know how far up the chain this baiting program goes right
now. I know the government is trying to dummy this down to the
lowest level possible," Culp told The Times last month. Vela is
scheduled to testify at Hensley's trial. His own pretrial hearings
are set to begin this month.