BAGHDAD — The murder trial of an Army sniper has begun days after the military court rejected a request from the soldier's lawyer to use classified material as part of his defense.
The trial of Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley started Tuesday amid denials from the military that his unit had been involved in a "baiting" program in which soldiers allegedly planted weapons and other material and shot Iraqis who tried to pick them up.
The focus on Hensley's unit has raised questions about whether his team had run amok or whether their commanders had bent rules to push them to rack up more "kills" in spring as a new U.S.-led security plan took hold.
Hensley's lawyer said the sniper was not guilty of fatally shooting three Iraqis in separate incidents in April and May. His attorney said the incidents, in a violent area south of Baghdad, were legitimate shootings.
Allegations of a baiting program have dogged the case since an investigation in the summer unearthed a sworn statement by a former platoon leader saying the Pentagon's Asymmetric Warfare Group suggested in January that his snipers plant ammunition, C4 explosives and components, and then shoot anyone who picked them up.
Pretrial hearings in July for Hensley and then-Spc. Jorge Sandoval Jr. detailed how snipers from the 25th Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, believed they had permission to carry materials for a classified program. Sandoval was acquitted on murder charges in September but demoted to private and is serving a 44-day sentence for planting a weapon on a corpse.
In a sworn statement June 23, the former platoon leader, Lt. Matthew Didier, who has been promoted to captain, said the Asymmetric Warfare Group visited his unit in January and asked about placing weapons at locations believed to be favored by insurgents near Iskandariya, south of Baghdad.
Didier quoted those officials as saying they would talk to commanders about the plan. "A few days later the Battalion Operations officer came to us with items (fake detonation cord, C-4, wires, AK-47 rounds, AK-47 magazines) we could place in or around known cache areas or likely cache spots," Didier said in his statement, obtained by The Times. "If we happened to see the individuals take the items we would engage the enemy to destroy an enemy."
Hensley's attorney, Capt. Daniel Kicza, on Tuesday refused to comment on the alleged baiting program.
But in July, in pretrial hearings, Kicza said the baiting issue was "essential" to proving his client's innocence.
On Saturday, Kicza suffered a setback when the military court denied his pretrial motion to present unspecified classified materials during trial.
"There was a determination that there was in fact classified information, but that the judge ruled the classified information was neither relevant or necessary," said Capt. Madeline Yanford, a lawyer with the military court.
Yanford and a military intelligence officer assigned to the court, Capt. Stacie Miller, told The Times that no baiting program existed and references to it were mistaken.
In Washington, senior military officials have refused to directly address the baiting allegations in current court cases. However, they have denied there were any classified programs to plant weapons and target Iraqis.
Members of the disbanded sniper unit have said they were under pressure to get kills in the area south of Baghdad. Hensley, who won an Army-wide sniper competition in 2002, was assigned to the unit in spring. On his first mission, the team recorded its first five kills.
The ruling in Hensley's case could also be crucial in Sgt. Evan Vela's defense. Vela faces murder charges in the May 11 shooting of an Iraqi man, one of the three deaths for which Hensley is being tried. Vela testified at Sandoval's trial that he shot the Iraqi twice in the head on Hensley's orders. Hensley has said the man was shot in self-defense.
Vela's attorney James Culp has made it clear he too believes the baiting question is crucial.
"I don't know how far up the chain this baiting program goes right now. I know the government is trying to dummy this down to the lowest level possible," Culp told The Times last month. Vela is scheduled to testify at Hensley's trial. His own pretrial hearings are set to begin this month.