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Sergeant denies ordering 3 Iraqis killed

The defense tries to paint him as a loyal combat leader who tried to cover up for two squad members.

March 16, 2007|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

FT. CAMPBELL, KY. — Speaking rapidly and gesturing forcefully, Staff Sgt. Raymond L. Girouard told a military court Thursday that he was shocked when two of his soldiers killed three Iraqi detainees in May, then decided on the spot to help them cover up their crime.

Girouard contradicted testimony by two squad members who said he told them during a hastily called meeting to kill the detainees. He could face life without parole if convicted of ordering the killings.

Asked by his attorney, Anita Gorecki, whether he ordered the men killed, Girouard replied: "No, ma'am. No ma'am."

"Are you absolutely positive?" Gorecki asked.

"Very positive," Girouard said. "For the last nine months, I've thought about it every night in my cell."

Girouard blamed Pvt. William B. Hunsaker for the killings, saying Hunsaker told him shortly before the deaths: "We should kill [them]. They're terrorists."

Hunsaker and Pfc. Corey R. Clagett, in plea agreements with the government in return for reduced sentences, confessed to shooting the Iraqis. They testified that Girouard ordered the killings and orchestrated a cover-up.

Girouard's testimony essentially amounted to a confession to charges of obstructing justice.

The defense strategy focused on fighting charges of premeditated murder by presenting Girouard as a professional combat leader so loyal to his men that he would lie to protect them -- even for murder.

Girouard, 24, maintained a rigid military posture in the witness chair. He punctuated his testimony with military jargon and acronyms easily understood by the five enlisted soldiers and two officers on the jury.

Wearing a green dress military uniform, he described a fast-moving combat mission that focused on two houses on a marshy island 60 miles northwest of Baghdad on May 9.

In one of those houses, the squad came across the three unarmed Iraqi men, who soldiers said were hiding behind two women.

Girouard denied calling a meeting inside the house to plot the murders. Instead, he said, he shouted to his men to replace thin plastic zip ties on the detainees with stronger plastic flex cuffs so that they could be taken away for further questioning.

He was escorting a fourth detainee to a helicopter landing zone, he said, when he heard gunshots.

Girouard said he was "pretty smoked up" when he realized his men had shot the detainees. He said Hunsaker told him he fired in self-defense after the Iraqis attacked him with a knife and broke free from their restraints.

But a small cut on Hunsaker's face "didn't look believable," Girouard said, and he concluded Hunsaker was lying. He decided under "split-decision thinking" to help Hunsaker perpetuate a cover-up story, he said.

"I wanted to help him be believable," he said. "He screwed up real bad. I was looking out for the well-being of my soldiers."

Girouard said he punched Clagett in the face "out of sheer anger" for killing the detainees. He said he shouted at Clagett: "You deserved it, you idiot!"

Although Girouard denied ordering the detainees killed, he said the rules of engagement given to him by his commanders were "to kill every military-age male" on the island.

Asked by one of the seven military jurors what he was told to expect on the island, Girouard replied: "An Al Qaeda training camp of 20 known terrorists, sir."

He told his attorney that the sudden, violent deaths of the detainees scared him. He added: "I was just shocked that it happened."

Under cross-examination, Girouard admitted that he lied to investigators and made a pact with Hunsaker and Clagett to portray the killings as self-defense.

Asked by a military prosecutor, Capt. William Fischbach, whether his statements were "bogus," "hogwash" and "lies," Girouard replied softly, "Yes, sir."

Asked how many lies he had told in the case, Girouard answered, "The only lie, sir, was the cover-up."

Asked why the jury should believe him, Girouard replied, "I'm telling the truth, sir."

Girouard told Fischbach that he kept an AK-47 assault rifle in his Humvee to train his soldiers on foreign-made weapons.

But a prosecution rebuttal witness, Sgt. Leonel Lemus, said Girouard told him he kept the rifle as a "drop weapon" to be planted at a potential crime scene in case one of his men killed an Iraqi noncombatant. He said Girouard never used the weapon for training.

Asked by Fischbach whether he had legal justification to cut Hunsaker, Girouard replied: "I had no right to cut him, sir. But I did it to look out for him, so he would not get into trouble."

"So your loyalty to your men trumps the law?" Fischbach asked.

Girouard did not answer.

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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