By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
BERLIN, March 30 -- A U.S. Army sergeant pleaded guilty to murder Monday in the deaths of four Iraqi prisoners in 2007, telling a military court that the slayings were "in the best interest of my soldiers."
Sgt. 1st Class Joseph P. Mayo, 27, was sentenced to 35 years in prison and became the fourth soldier convicted in the deaths of four Iraqi men in Baghdad in the spring of 2007. The prisoners were each shot in the back of the head while handcuffed and blindfolded, then dumped into a canal, according to testimony at the U.S. Army's Rose Barracks courthouse in Vilseck, Germany.
The Iraqis had been arrested on suspicion of attacking U.S. military patrols in Baghdad after they were found in possession of rifles and ammunition. Frustrated by a lack of evidence to keep them in detention, however, members of Mayo's infantry unit took the prisoners to a remote area and executed them, according to testimony and evidence presented in the case.
"I really believed I was protecting my soldiers," Mayo told the court Monday. "I take full responsibility for my actions. Now I have to pay for my mistake." He pleaded guilty to premeditated murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
A medic in the unit, Sgt. Michael P. Leahy Jr., 28, was convicted last month and sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole, after he confessed to killing one of the prisoners and shooting another.
Master Sgt. John E. Hatley, 40, is scheduled to face court-martial next month on murder charges for shooting one of the prisoners.
In his testimony Monday, Mayo said Hatley suggested that the soldiers take matters into their own hands rather than free the Iraqis. "He said we should take care of them. I agreed."
Two other soldiers, Spec. Steven A. Ribordy, 26, and Spec. Belmor Ramos, 24, pleaded guilty last year to being accessories to the murders. Charges against two other members of the unit have since been dropped.
The soldiers were members of the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division in Iraq. Their unit is now part of the 172nd Infantry Brigade based in Grafenwoehr, Germany.
Ribordy testified last month at a related court-martial that one of the Iraqis initially survived a shot to the back of the head and was "still breathing and gurgling on the ground."
He said Hatley then shot the prisoner again, this time fatally and in the chest. Ribordy also testified that he was told by Leahy to destroy photographs he had taken of the Iraqis after they were arrested.
Army investigators have been unable to identify the Iraqis or find the bodies, which were dumped in a waterway in southwest Baghdad.