By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 21, 2006; A10
Attorneys for Army soldiers accused of raping an Iraqi teenager and killing her and her family in March are planning to argue that the men were under extreme emotional distress because of the horrors of their combat assignment and will probably challenge the alleged confessions some of the soldiers gave to investigators in Iraq.
David Sheldon, a civilian lawyer who is representing Spec. James P. Barker, said yesterday that B Company, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment was devastated by numerous combat casualties and repeated violent attacks in and around Mahmudiyah before and after a group of soldiers allegedly attacked the Iraqi family March 12. Sheldon said the men were placed at a traffic checkpoint "in one of the most stressful environments imaginable" and that commanders failed to recognize the damage that was being done to the soldiers.
Barker is one of five soldiers who have been charged with raping and killing Abier Kassim Hamzah Rashid al Janabi -- listed in new court documents as being under 15 years old -- and also killing her parents and her younger sister.
In federal court documents filed in the case against Steven D. Green, 21, a former Army private who allegedly led the attack, government officials said the men planned the crime. In military charge sheets obtained by The Washington Post, officials say the men also burned their clothes after the attack and one disposed of the alleged murder weapon in a canal.
"While the government wants to say that this was somehow a planned event, it's clearly the result of a tremendously stressful environment where soldiers are subjected to the most horrendous acts of violence by the insurgency," Sheldon said, describing a unit that was in disarray, with leadership problems and outside threats. "They were extremely young soldiers who suffered repeated traumatic attacks and saw unimaginable carnage. This was not a crime of opportunity but the result of extreme pressure."
Another lawyer familiar with the case said that Sheldon's argument is consistent with what he had heard.
Barker, 23, was serving at the checkpoint with Green, Pfc. Jesse V. Spielman, Pfc. Bryan Howard and Sgt. Paul Cortez. According to the charging documents, Barker, Green, Spielman and Cortez drank alcohol together before going to a house near their checkpoint. Sources said Howard stayed behind to man a radio.
Sheldon said the men had served at the checkpoint -- one of the most dangerous jobs on the ground in Iraq -- for far longer than Army procedures allow. While there is supposed to be a limit of just a few days on such a post, this squad had been doing the job for nearly a month, another lawyer said.
"This unit suffered tremendous casualties," Sheldon said. "Due to continuous insurgency action, Specialist Barker, along with his fellow soldiers, lost a number of close friends in his company as well as an Iraqi with whom he was very close friends. . . . The fact is, and it is undeniable, that Specialist Barker and the soldiers he served with were under tremendous battlefield stress."
While such stress has become a major issue in the war in Iraq, largely because of the unpredictable and violent attacks, a case like the one in Mahmudiyah is still a rarity.
Sheldon said he believes Green led the other soldiers to the house without telling them what he planned to do, and some of those soldiers have since pointed to Green as the only one who fired a gun in the house. Green was later discharged from the Army for an unspecified "personality disorder" before officials knew of the attack.
Still, Army officials allege Green and others raped the girl, and in the charge sheets allege that Spielman "wrongfully" touched the corpse.
Patrick Bouldin, a federal public defender who represents Green in Kentucky, said yesterday that he has filed a request for a gag order in the case and declined to comment. Yesterday, prosecutors, citing logistical concerns, asked for an extension of a grand jury for Green's case and a judge agreed to delay it until Nov. 8.
Article 32 hearings -- the military equivalent of grand jury hearings -- for Barker and others who remain in Iraq are scheduled for Aug. 6 in Baghdad.