A 17-year Army veteran and native of Virginia's Northern Neck was convicted yesterday of armed robbery for stealing a sport-utility vehicle on an Iraqi street last year.
Sgt. 1st Class James H. Williams said he commandeered the SUV as part of the war effort, but prosecutors argued successfully that it was simply a crime.
Williams, who could have faced up to 15 years in jail, was not sentenced to any jail time. But his rank was reduced to private and he was given a bad-conduct discharge. That means Williams, who said he had planned to retire in two years, will lose his Army benefits. His attorney said he plans to appeal.
The court-martial panel, made up of eight officers who participated in the Iraq war, deliberated about three hours before reaching its guilty verdict, which under military law requires a two-thirds majority. The precise vote was not immediately available.
The three-day court-martial was held at the Fort Campbell, Ky., headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division, to which Williams is assigned. His attorney, Bernard Casey, argued that Williams was singled out because the car's owner was a prominent sheik in a region where support for the U.S. military was shaky in the month after the war began -- and still is. Casey contended that Williams and the soldiers with him were permitted to take the vehicle under the military's rules of engagement in an emergency and that their unit had been held back by 20-year-old, broken Humvees.
But prosecutors said the circumstances didn't merit seizing civilian property, and they called witnesses who said Williams and other soldiers tried to hide the theft.
The panel "raised a lot of questions about his judgment, but this case isn't really about judgment; bad judgment doesn't translate into criminal intent," Casey said after the verdict.
Maj. David Crawford, chief of administrative law at Fort Campbell, said that even if Williams was following the order of his platoon leader, he did not have the necessary permission from his company commander to take the vehicle.
Williams also was convicted of dereliction of duty for allowing his soldiers to drink alcohol, which is forbidden among U.S. military personnel in Iraq.