Hell Trial 17th JAN 2008

17 January 2008

by Defend Our Troops Contributing Editor, Nathaniel R. Helms

Jim Culp is a former Army paratrooper turned Berkeley-law school grad who represents the entire conservative wing of his law school class. He was once an enlisted man, a shined-up grunt assigned to the ultra-STRAC Berlin Brigade when the infamous Wall came tumbling down. It was an epiphany to watch freedom literally overcome tyranny before his eyes, Culp said, a rare privilege indeed.

Culp represents Sgt. Evan Vela, then a 22-year old Ranger-trained airborne sniper going to trial in Kuwait on January 28 for murder.

The Army alleges Vela gunned down an Iraqi man who innocently walked up on his hidden sniper position and then planted a gun on the dead man’s chest to make it appear like he had it coming. It’s an old dodge badge heavy cops have used since blind justice started frowning mightily on summary judgment. The Iraq War, however, may be the first war in history where soldiers routinely carry ‘throwdowns’ as well. 

Two other soldiers charged in the same incident have already been found ‘not guilty.’

Since early January Culp has been in Baghdad getting ready for Vela’s trial. He is there because the prosecution is quartered at Camp Victory, deep in the heart of the newly pacified region of Iraq where mortars are a daily part of the criminal justice routine. MG Rick Lynch, the general commanding the Multi-National Division, Center, denied a defense motion to move the trial to Alaska.

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It certainly would have been safer. One of the kinder and gentler insurgency’s mortar rounds landed near Culp while this reporter was enjoying a lively repartee with him via the Internet on Tuesday morning.

“Break . . . a big ass mortar round just fell and shook my hootch. Oh yeah, I am in Iraq,” Culp reported.

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It makes it hard to stay focused sometimes, Culp said, an irony in a way, because it is the same thing that happened to Sgt. Vela after enduring weeks of sleep deprivation, high casualties, IEDs going off in his face, and extreme pressure to raise the platoon’s body count. Judgment gets impaired, reason goes down the tubes, and bad things happen to good people.

Not being able to focus is the core defense of Vela’s case, Culp said. Unfortunately, MG Lynch sees it differently and denied a bevy of motions the defense filed that might have proved Vela was already toast when the killing occurred. Lynch claims that Vela never indicated he was sleep deprived, suffering from concussion-induced brain trauma, and Post traumatic Stress Disorder during the preliminary investigation. Oddly enough, not knowing is part of the symptoms.

The hard-charging sergeant alleges that investigators changed his statement, and that the military lawyer counseling him at his confinement facility in Kuwait via telephone from Iraq was a lousy lawyer. The JAG officer urged him to waive his right to an Article 32 hearing. His advice was the basis of the ineffective counsel motion Culp filed to win it back. Culp, a former Army lawyer, said it was a bonehead mistake inexperienced lawyers that represent enlisted men often make.  Colonels and generals usually get better lawyers in the rare instances they need them.

Sgt. Vela acknowledges he shot the man, he said shooting the enemy is doing his job. His beef is with the officers and senior NCOs he said abandoned him when the going got tough. There is a lot of that going around in Iraq these days. The Iraq War may also be the first war in history where senior officers, the guardians of military honor, take the Fifth like baseball players in front of a Senate subcommittee.

Sgt. Evan Vela at the tip of a commander’s sword

Sgt. Vela deployed to the Iskandariyah area of Iraq (ominously known as the ‘Triangle of Death’) with the Scout Platoon of the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment in October 2006. He left behind a wife and two children. For about six months he served as a scout in the platoon, which had earned a lackluster reputation for killing folks.

In the spring the battalion’s senior leadership, LTC Robert M. Balcavage and CSM Bernie Knight felt that the snipers were not being aggressive enough and its platoon sergeant ineffective.  

“In very real terms, both LTC Balcavage and CSM Knight viewed their snipers as the battalion’s own personal sword with which the invisible enemy would be dealt with,” according to the failed Supplement to Motion to Release from Pre-Trail Confinement the defense introduced last December. Apparently they intended to smite some enemy. Smiting was more popular in Biblical times but is equally effective today. 

They appointed a stud staff sergeant named Michael Hensley as the person to lead the new and deadlier sniper section. Hensley was the ‘perfect choice’ because he was the American Armed Force, All-Service, sniper competition winner. Kills went up drastically, especially after the sergeant major instructed him the old man wanted more kills.

On May 11 Vela killed the Iraqi who blundered into his sniper position and got himself into serious trouble. It arrived behind the statements of snipers SPC Alexander Flores and PFC David Petta, who reported to the Chaplain on June 21 that they believed several kills made by their fellow snipers (a kill made by Hensley on 14 April 2007, a kill made by SPC Jorge Sandoval on 27 April 2007, and a kill made by Vela on 11 May 2007), had been illegal. Three days later Vela, Hensley, and Sandoval were confined to an isolated  tent while the CID investigated their allegations.

Vela was charged with unlawfully killing a local national by the name of Genei Nesir Khudair Al Janabi at close range with a 9mm pistol. On 1 July 2007, LTC Balcavage wrote a memo supporting his desire to see Vela and his battle buddies confined someplace far away. Their arrest was causing a morale problem in the ranks, the battalion commander noted. Three days later he filed another memo claiming pretrial confinement is necessary because it is more likely than not that Sgt Vela committed offenses triable by court-martial and it is foreseeable that the accused will engage in additional serious criminal misconduct and may continue to attempt to influence the future testimony of other Soldiers.

Balcavage added that “less severe forms of restraint are inadequate, wink-wink, in this case”.

Culp believes Vela’s commander had another motive for getting his recalcitrant snipers out of Dodge.

When a sniper named Sgt Richard Hand testified at Vela’s Article 32 hearing, he said when asked whether CSM Knight ever specifically said to the snipers. “You guys need to be getting more kills,” Sgt Hand replied “yes.”  When Hand was asked whether CSM Knight had ever commented, “If you feel threatened” wink, wink you could kill somebody, his reply was again “yes.”

Political correctness applied to war gives insanity of human conflict a bad name

One way or another Vela will discover his fate in Kuwait. Culp says his client’s case is part of a disturbing trend. Currently there are four criminal prosecutions going on more or less concurrently over allegations that squad leaders and other ranking personnel in small units committed murder or cover up for ordering their men to unlawfully kill Iraqis. There are a variety of reasons for the prosecutions, whether they will be upheld is still up in the air. The common thread however, is that the senior leadership in Iraq is sending its warriors into battle prepared to prosecute them for killing the wrong people the wrong way. It is part of the sweeping political correctness applied to war that is giving the insanity of human conflict a bad name.

Sgt. 1st Class Trey Corrales

In Hawaii, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the commander of the 25th Infantry Division, has referred Spc. Christopher Shore to a general court martial for third-degree murder on charges he murdered an unarmed Iraqi. The charge is similar to manslaughter in the civilian justice system. The prosecution wanted him tried for premeditated murder.

Shore testified in his Article 32 hearing that he only pretended to shoot the Iraqi because he didn’t want to openly defy an order from an abusive platoon sergeant to kill the Iraqi.

His platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Trey Corrales, shot the man multiple times and then ordered Shore to “finish him.” He has also been charged with multiple crimes.

Sgt. Leonardo Treviño

At Fort Hood, Texas a military prosecutor wants another Army sergeant to be court-martialed for shooting a severely wounded al-Qaeda insurgent. The government says Sergeant Leonardo Treviño ordered a medic to suffocate him to quiet the man down and put him out of his misery. After the medic pretended to try and kill the prisoner, Treviño allegedly shot the unarmed man again because “he just wouldn’t die.”

The statements came in an Article 32 hearing wrapped up at Fort Hood last December. Treviño faces murder and other charges for alleged June incidents in Iraq. The 30-year-old soldier from San Antonio is accused of murder and cover up.

SSgt. Raymond Girouard

Last year, at Fort Campbell, four soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division were convicted of unlawfully killing three Iraqi soldiers on the order of former Staff SergeantRaymond L. Girouard.On September 2, 2006, Army investigator Lt. Col. James P. Daniel Jr. recommended the death penalty for the soldiers involved in the killing.

Staff SergeantRaymond L. Girouard is currently serving a 10-year sentence at Ft. Leavenworth. Two soldiers accused of firing on the men as they fled, Specialist William B. Hunsaker and Pfc. Corey R. Clagett, were also convicted and given 18-year sentences. 

A fourth soldier, SPC Juston R. Grabor, was charged on 21 June 2006 with premeditated murder, attempted premeditated murder, conspiracy to commit murder and making a false official statement. Grabor struck a deal with prosecutors and received a nine-month sentence for his role in the incident. According to his lawyers, Graber was convicted of aggravated assault and received the reduced sentence in exchange for his testifying against three other members of his squad.

The defense maintains that commanders gave an order to kill all military-aged males the unit encountered on an island in Tharthar Lake, a suspected Al Qaeda base. The accused claimed that Col. Michael D. Steele, gave orders to “kill all military age males”. Steele received a letter of reprimand for his actions.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad…

A last e-mail from Culp ended our conversation for the day.

“Oh, another mortar. This one further away (only slightly shook the trailer). Have a beer (or two) for me. I have to get back to work now.–Jim”