SEATTLE — A military judge has ruled that defense examiners can utilize hypnosis to help Army Sgt. John Russell penetrate the haze of amnesia he says prevents him from remembering the day he allegedly killed five fellow service members at a mental health clinic in Iraq.
Monday's ruling is a boost for the defense, which hopes to show that Russell should not face the death penalty because he was suffering from a mental breakdown brought on by longstanding depression, mental illness and Army psychiatrists who allegedly taunted him instead of treating him.
Judge David L. Conn also authorized the defense to hire an expert to conduct tests for signs of physical brain damage, but ruled that defense lawyers hadn't shown they need additional experts to analyze whether there were deficiencies in the psychiatric care that Russell received at the hands of Army doctors. The evidence already laid out so far, he said, suggests the defense is well able to present such a case even without its bid to have an expert witness testify about the Army’s standards of care for combat stress.
The judge quoted from the defense’s chief mental health consultant, Robert L. Sadoff of the University of Pennsylvania, who has said he believes Russell was “provoked to violence by the ineptitude and lack of compassion” of two of his Army psychiatrists while he was in an acute state of depression.
Russell, a 48-year-old communications specialist from Sherman, Texas, was under watch by colleagues who were worried he was falling apart and who had entreated doctors at the Camp Liberty combat stress clinic to help him. On the day of the shootings in May 2009, Russell stormed out of the Baghdad clinic after failing to get much help, grabbed a weapon from a colleague, returned and opened fire, killing five service members.
Army prosecutors, who are seeking the death penalty, have said the killings grew out of conflicts Russell was having with members of his unit and assert that Russell carried out the killings with full knowledge of what he was doing.
They argued in court against employing hypnosis to help him recover his memory of that day, saying it can produce “spontaneous errors” in memory.
“There is no demonstrated value of hypnosis, as it is completely unreliable and subject to easy manipulation,” Army prosecutors argued in court papers.
Substantial questions remain about whether any evidence gleaned through hypnosis will be admissible during Russell’s court-martial. But his civilian attorney, James Culp, said the court’s rulings could help prove to a military jury that Russell cannot be considered mentally responsible for the shootings.
Culp noted that the same investigating officer who recommended that the 2009 attack at Ft. Hood in Texas be tried as a capital case, Col. James Pohl, advised in 2011 against seeking the death penalty for Russell. Pohl concluded that Russell suffered from an “undisputed mental disease or defect” that makes capital punishment inappropriate.
Army commanders overturned that recommendation and this fall reaffirmed their decision to seek the death penalty.
“Unexplainably, the prosecution continues to seek to kill Sgt. Russell,” Culp said in a statement.
The defense is “disappointed” not to have access to an expert on what standards are set for Army combat stress psychiatrists, Culp said. “Nevertheless, we are encouraged by the judge’s rationale that the evidence of Sgt. Russell’s maltreatment and the significant role it played in the overall tragedy of this case is so obvious and inexcusable, it requires no expert explanation.”
Military prosecutors have said they are prohibited from commenting on the case.