MOSUL, Iraq — A U.S. soldier accused of shooting a captured man who was wounded, handcuffed and blindfolded faced a hearing Tuesday in this northern Iraqi city to determine if he should be court-martialed.
Sgt. Timothy Knutson of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, is charged with attempting to murder an unknown man and making a false statement. While Knutson's attorney argued that the shooting was a split-second decision made under fire to protect his men, prosecutors said it was a crime.
Tuesday's proceeding, known as an Article 32 hearing, is the military equivalent of a grand jury investigation. Within two weeks, an investigating officer will recommend whether Knutson should face a court-martial.
If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
According to testimony at the hearing, the shooting occurred Nov. 11 when Knutson and fellow members of his Charlie Company were on a mission to round up insurgents in the Palestine neighborhood of eastern Mosul.
The day had begun stressfully, other soldiers testified. A battalion of Iraqi national guardsmen had been attacked near a bridge, and soldiers from Charlie Company had been called to their aid.
"The Iraqis were in a panic mode," said Capt. Rob Born, commander of Charlie Company. "That, coupled with being under fire, was very stressful."
Later, as the men approached the Palestine neighborhood, one of the company's Stryker armored vehicles was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade.
"We were taking a lot of small-arms and RPG fire," Born said. Knutson and other soldiers went house to house, looking for insurgents. At one house, Knutson spotted two men with AK-47s, said Sgt. Tyler Curtis, who was with Knutson. "He shot one guy in the stomach," Curtis said, describing the wounded man as "a large guy, 200 pounds."
Sgt. Steven McCord, who was in a nearby building, said he heard yelling and gunshots and ran outside to find a man lying against a wall, with a machine gun on the ground nearby.
McCord said he tossed the weapon aside. The man had a gunshot wound to his abdomen.
With mortar and small-arms fire continuing to threaten the Americans, McCord said, Knutson ordered everyone inside the building. McCord said he tried to drag the man inside. "He was crying, moaning," McCord testified.
Spc. James Gilbert performed first aid on the man, then rolled him over and put flexible handcuffs on his wrists, behind his back. Gilbert said he also put darkened goggles on the wounded man, as a blindfold of sorts.
"He continued to say things, he wasn't making any sense," Gilbert testified. Asked if the man appeared to have head wounds, Gilbert said he did not.
Gilbert, Curtis and McCord tried to move the wounded man back to their Stryker vehicle. "We were basically just dragging," McCord said. The man "felt like dead weight."
Meanwhile, Pfc. Docklure Stephanus had helped bring two other captured men to the Stryker. He saw the other soldiers struggling to move the wounded man, and went to help.
"It was difficult, he was a big guy," Stephanus testified. The man, however, didn't struggle. "He didn't say a word," he said.
Knutson told the soldiers to leave the man and get back to the vehicle.
Stephanus started running and heard a shot behind him, he said. He turned and saw Knutson charging his M-4 rifle before firing a second time, he said.
McCord, too, was running to the Stryker. "I heard a gunshot and saw Knutson standing next to him," he said. "I saw Sgt. Knutson pull back the charge again, as if he had a weapons malfunction." When McCord heard a second shot, he kept running, without turning around.
But Gilbert said he looked back "and saw what appeared to be a head wound on the detainee, like a chunk missing."
In the Stryker, Sgt. John Garrison had been watching the events on a video monitor. He said he saw Knutson stand over the wounded man and fire.
"After the first shot, he jumped," Garrison testified. At the second shot, "the body didn't move."
Born, the captain, testified that at some point he told Knutson over the radio that "if [the captive]'s dead, leave him in place." But it was unclear at what point he issued that order.
The soldiers left the body on the ground and drove away. It was not clear from the testimony whether the man had died.
Born described Knutson as a "top squad leader in the platoon." At his first opportunity after the battle, Knutson approached Born to discuss the incident.
"He said he'd done something wrong, [that] he didn't know what he was thinking," Born said. "He was definitely upset."
Knutson did not testify at Tuesday's hearing, but his defense attorney said he made a split-second decision while under fire. Knutson, he said, was thinking of his comrades' safety.
"This is not a murder," the defense attorney said. "This is a young combat leader who had to make a difficult decision in a very short time."
The prosecutor, however, called the shooting "a grave breach of the Geneva Convention.... This was a crime."