Court-martial to open
in killings of 3 Iraqis
By Paul von Zielbauer
New York Times Staff Writer
November 6, 2007
BAGHDAD — An Army sniper team leader charged with murdering
three men south of Baghdad will go on trial today in Baghdad in a
court-martial that is likely to highlight a classified Pentagon
program in which snipers placed fake weapons as “bait” to attract
and kill enemy fighters.
The team leader, Staff
Sgt. Michael A. Hensley, who was praised by his battalion’s leaders
earlier this year for dramatically increasing his unit’s kill count,
is charged with the premeditated murder of three men in separate
killings last April and May near Iskandariya, a Sunni Arab region
south of Baghdad where American forces have battled a tenacious
Sergeant Hensley, 27,
of Candler, N.C., is one of three members of the First Battalion,
501st Infantry Regiment, Fourth Brigade (Airborne), 25th Infantry
Division, who were charged in the three killings. Sergeant Hensley,
an Army Ranger and expert marksman, was the only one of the three
snipers charged with all three.
The baiting program was
introduced to select members of the First Battalion, including
Sergeant Hensley, in late January by the Asymmetrical Warfare Group,
a Defense Department agency that develops secret methods of fighting
Iraq, said Capt. Matthew Didier, the platoon commander at the
time of the killings, in a sworn statement that has not been made
public but was obtained by The New York Times.
“If we happened to see
the individual take the items we would engage, to destroy the
enemy,” Captain Didier said in the statement, dated June 23.
Lawyers for Sergeant
Hensley and the other snipers accused in the case have suggested the
baiting program is relevant to their defense because it demonstrates
the extent to which Army and Pentagon commanders approved
unconventional methods of killing not only insurgents but also
unarmed men of military age who were believed to be enemy fighters.
Last month, a military
jury found one of the other team members, Specialist Jorge G.
Sandoval, not guilty of killing two men, on April 27 and May 11, but
convicted him of planting evidence — a roll of copper trigger wire —
on one of the bodies. An evidentiary hearing for the third member of
the sniper team, Sgt. Evan Vela, who is accused of shooting a man in
the head with a pistol on May 11 after Sergeant Hensley captured
him, is to begin later this month.
All three snipers’
legal cases have raised questions about how military commanders in
Iraq have changed or expanded the rules for targeting and killing
enemy forces in Iraq during a determined insurgency.
In the Sandoval trial,
for instance, a sniper team member, Sgt. David Murphy, testified
that Captain Didier told his men before the April 27 killing that
their rules of engagement had changed to allow them to kill even
unarmed men fleeing a battle in a rural area with American or Iraqi
“Engage fleeing local
nationals without weapons,” Sergeant Murphy testified hearing
Captain Didier say in a radio transmission following a firefight
with insurgents that day, using a military term for Iraqis.
Referring to the order, Sergeant. Murphy added, “That was the first
time we’d heard that.”
Sergeant Hensley is
accused of killing a man on April 14 after reporting that he saw the
man laying wire for a bomb, court documents said. He was also
charged with murder in the second killing, on April 27, in which he
ordered Specialist Sandoval to kill a man they believed was fleeing
a battle with American forces, after Captain Didier cleared them to
In the third killing,
on May 11, prosecutors say Sergeant Hensley ordered Sergeant Vela to
kill an Iraqi man captured near the snipers’ hide-out. But in a
sworn statement given later that day and obtained by The New York
Times, Sergeant Hensley said he ordered Sergeant Vela to shoot the
man after the man, surprised by his capture, struggled to aim a
loaded AK-47 at other sniper team members.
“I reached up and put
him into a rear naked choke, his hands still on the weapon,
struggling to fire it,” Sergeant Hensley wrote in the statement. “I
took him to the ground, utilizing his head garment as it slid down
over his head. Sergeant Vela then placed 2 9-millimeter rounds in
the insurgent’s head.”
lawyers are expected to portray all three killings as occurring with
the knowledge and encouragement of his superiors.
In interviews, several
snipers in Sergeant Hensley’s unit, which has been disbanded, said
the First Battalion’s top commissioned and noncommissioned officers
had encouraged soldiers to go beyond the normal rules of engagement
to increase kill counts.
“They told us over and
over again, ‘Hey, if you guys feel threatened, kill them,’” said
Specialist Joshua Michaud in an interview at Camp Liberty, Iraq,
last month. In the sniper unit, he said, those comments were taken
to mean, “Go out there and kill more people.”