Wilburn C. Russell, 73, wipes his eyes after talking to reporters in front… (AP Photo / LM Otero )
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. — Army Sgt. John M. Russell declined to enter a plea at his arraignment Friday on charges of killing five fellow service members at a combat stress clinic in Iraq, as defense lawyers pushed for new psychological evaluations that could help forestall the death penalty.
At a hearing in a small courtroom at the base where Russell is being held, defense attorneys argued that Russell should be transferred temporarily to Pennsylvania to allow a full evaluation by Dr. Robert Sadoff, one of the nation’s premier experts in forensic psychiatry.
The case, involving the deadliest act of soldier-on-soldier violence in the Iraq war, is likely to rely heavily on psychiatric testimony, both because of the possibility of an insanity defense — highly unusual in military cases — and the probability that the quality of psychological care Russell received from Army doctors will be a defining question.
Russell, 47, of Sherman, Texas, is charged with gunning down five fellow soldiers at the Camp Liberty Combat Stress Center in Baghdad where he had previously, but largely unsuccessfully, gone for help with mounting feelings of paranoia, stress and depression.
Witnesses told investigators Russell was repeatedly sent back to his unit without substantial help. Just before the shooting, an Army psychologist got into a confrontation with Russell just before the shootings, with an Army psychiatrist yelling at Russell as he walked out of the clinic while threatening to kill himself, according to testimony presented to Army investigators.
Russell sat quietly next to his lawyers Friday but postponed entering a plea. James Culp, his civilian attorney, said no determination has been made yet whether to plead not guilty or to attempt to assert an insanity defense. Much, he said, will depend on the outcome of further mental evaluations.
An Army mental health board in 2009 found that Russell was incompetent to stand trial, concluding he suffered from a major depressive disorder with “psychotic features.” After more than a year of intensive therapy and high daily doses of antidepressant and antipsychotic medications, Russell was found by a second mental health board to be competent to stand trial. A military reviewer ruled last month that he would potentially face the death penalty.
The defense is seeking the temporary transfer to Pennsylvania because Sadoff, whose wife has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, is unable to travel regularly to Washington state, where Russell is being held. Sadoff is a professor of forensic psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania.
Russell briefly took the witness stand Friday to describe his previous transfers, from Kuwait to Germany, Virginia and Kansas, sometimes on civilian planes and occasionally staying in hotels, always accompanied by at least three guards. Defense lawyers are contending it will be safe to transport him yet again to Pennsylvania for an extended mental health evaluation.
The military prosecutor, Capt. Daniel Mazzone, argued that no transfer was necessary. The judge in the case, Col. David Conn, is expected to rule after an additional hearing next week.
Should a 7-year-old have a cellphone? Read this and decide
New Mexico wildfire, largest in state history, only 10% contained
Rutgers case: Victim's parents dismiss Ravi apology as a PR stunt