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Witness recalls less
at Iraq sniper trial

At the court-martial in Baghdad of his
onetime superior on murder charges,
|the GI says he now remembers little
about a shooting incident.

Los Angeles Times
November 8, 2007

Witness recalls less at Iraq sniper trial
At the court-martial in Baghdad of his onetime superior on murder charges, the GI says he now remembers little about a shooting incident.

By Ned Parker
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

November 8, 2007

BAGHDAD TA U.S. Army sergeant who testified in September that he executed an Iraqi on orders from his platoon's senior sniper told the soldier's court-martial Wednesday that he now remembers little about the incident.

The witness, Sgt. Evan Vela, and the defendant, Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley, stand at the center of the controversy over the killing of three Iraqis south of Baghdad in the spring.

Testifying Sept. 27 at another colleague's court-martial, Vela gave a chilling account of how he had shot two bullets into the head of the Iraqi man, saying he was following Hensley's direct order.

The testimony helped the defendant in that case, Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval Jr., win acquittal on murder charges, though he is serving 44 days in detention for planting bomb wiring on an Iraqi he had slain. However, those earlier statements are not admissible in Hensley's court-martial or in Vela's upcoming trial.

It was not immediately clear Wednesday why Vela changed his account. One observer at the trial said Vela had pulled off badges from his army uniform outside the courthouse before taking the stand. He described Vela's demeanor as angry and confused.

During the hearing, Vela, 23, frequently spoke in a mumble, glancing down or staring into space. He scowled and often answered tersely, "Yes, sir."

Hensley sat erect in his chair, at times jotting notes, chuckling and speaking with his attorney.

Asked what happened May 11, Vela described being in a camp close to the Euphrates River when the Iraqi stumbled into the platoon's area. Asked for more details, he said he wasn't sure about what came next. He described his team searching the interloper for weapons; the man's son then appeared by the troops' camp and they briefly held the youth.

Two of Vela's colleagues went into a pump station and another was on a berm, he said. Vela was left alone with Hensley and the Iraqi detainee. Hensley asked him whether he was taking care of security, Vela recalled.

The prosecution asked repeatedly whether the senior sniper had demanded that Vela shoot the Iraqi. Vela answered that he could not remember.

Asked why he shot the Iraqi a second time, Vela said, "It looked like he was suffering. His body was convulsing."

He testified that everything is a fog to him now. "I don't even remember squeezing the trigger. I didn't even hear the pistol discharge."

The testimony was a boost to Hensley, who faces three charges of premeditated murder over three incidents in April and May. However, Vela was unable to explain a Kalashnikov found on the Iraqi's body that Hensley's companions said was not there when the Iraqi crossed into their camp.

On Tuesday, Sandoval testified that while inside the nearby pump station he had heard Hensley outside ask Vela whether he was ready, and then heard shots fired. But Sandoval neither explained what Hensley meant nor saw what occurred.

Hensley also was indicted on three counts of planting arms and charged with insubordination. He is accused of tailoring two of his men's versions of events after the May 11 shooting. The court said Wednesday that Hensley had written Vela a letter in detention, but it decided it wasn't meant to intimidate him.

Vela's pretrial hearing on charges of premeditated murder, planting a weapon, making false statements and obstruction of justice is set to start Saturday.

In other testimony Wednesday, Hensley's defense brought witnesses to testify about shootings he or his men carried out April 14 and 27. The witnesses stressed the dangers of extremists in the area and said Hensley followed rules of engagement.

Soldiers from Hensley's section also said they were under pressure from their battalion commander and sergeant major to kill more insurgents.

The defense and prosecution did not mention an alleged program of baiting, in which soldiers reportedly were authorized to plant weapons in order to shoot to kill anyone who tried to take them.

Over the weekend, the court blocked a defense motion to introduce classified materials into the proceedings.

The killings of the three Iraqis came to light after two soldiers informed U.S. Army criminal investigators that they suspected their sniper section was running a program in which the troops planted weapon props.

The 17-year-old son of the Iraqi who was killed May 11 testified Tuesday and Wednesday. In between being summoned to court, the teenager sat in the sun with a group of people, including members of the sniper unit. The teenager said he did not recognize any of the people.