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Suspect in Afghan killings didn't expect 4th deployment, lawyer says

He says the Army sergeant had a clean record and had suffered injuries in Iraq; his family denies reports of domestic problems.

March 15, 2012|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Seattle — The Army staff sergeant suspected of killing 16 civilians in southern Afghanistan had been redeployed to a war zone despite being promised that his third previous combat tour in Iraq would be his last, his attorney said Thursday evening.

The 38-year-old soldier is in "shock" and faces the possibility that military lawyers will seek the death penalty, said lawyer John Henry Browne, who spoke with his client briefly by telephone where he was being held in Kuwait.

Military lawyers have said they will not identify the suspect until they are ready to file criminal charges against him in military court.

"He received almost every award you can get as a combat veteran.... He has no prior events in his dossier indicating any kind of misbehavior," Browne said.

The soldier's wife and other family members could provide no explanation for his alleged middle-of-the-night foray outside the small base where he was stationed and the deadly rampage that followed, the attorney said.

"They were totally shocked. He's never said anything antagonistic about Muslims, he's never said anything about Middle Eastern individuals. He has in general been very mild-mannered, so they were shocked by this."

Out of fear of possible reprisals, the suspect's wife and children have been brought onto Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Tacoma, Wash., Browne said. The base is home to the 2nd Infantry Division's 3rd Stryker Brigade, whose other members remain in Afghanistan.

Browne said the family strongly rejected recent news reports that the suspect was having domestic problems.

"It's quite offensive to the family, and to us, that there's some sort of suggestion that there was some problem. It was a very strong marriage. There was a lot of love, a lot of respect," he said. "There are problems, like there are with all of us as far as finances and all, but nothing serious. There's certainly no marital discord in this family at all."

The day before the shooting rampage, Browne said, someone had been hurt at the special forces base where the suspect was.

"We have been informed at this small base ... someone was gravely injured the day before the incident," he said. "It affected all the soldiers."

Browne later told the Associated Press that the suspect saw a friend's leg blown off as he stood beside him.

The suspect grew up in the Midwest and joined the Army after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, Browne said. He was injured during a previous tour in Iraq when the vehicle in which he was riding was hit by an improvised explosive device, the lawyer said. The suspect suffered a concussive head injury and a wound that caused him to lose part of his foot.

The head injury had been evaluated at Madigan Army Medical Center at Lewis-McChord, Browne said, and the suspect had been found suitable for redeployment.

"The military provides counseling to both soldiers and their families, and there was some counseling with our client about his previous injuries that he received in Iraq, but there was no 'he shouldn't go' conversation that we know of," Browne said.

Still, the sergeant and his fellow soldiers had initially understood that after three combat tours, the brigade would not have to redeploy — only to learn with little notice that they were going to Afghanistan, he said.

"He was told that he was not going to be redeployed, and the family was counting on him not being redeployed. He and the family were told that his tours in the Middle East were over, and literally overnight that changed," Browne said.

Browne, who recently represented celebrated former fugitive Colton Harris-Moore, known as the "Barefoot Bandit," said he had been brought in to support military lawyers and to handle some of the "political" aspects of a case that has already sparked tensions among the U.S., Afghanistan and Kuwait, which reportedly was not alerted before the suspect arrived.

"This is an international event," Browne said. "And it's a very touchy event for our government and for other governments, and so it's not just a normal criminal case, like we deal with. We understand that, and we understand our government's concern about it, we understand the concern of Afghanistan and its people."

Although military lawyers have said they will consider seeking the death penalty, Browne said he would try to ensure that didn't happen.

"There is discussion of the death penalty, understandably, I think, in this situation, which makes us very nervous," Browne said. "So it's a very serious matter, and it's certainly not off the table at this point. Our hope is maybe it will be."

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