BAGHDAD - A U.S. Army sniper accused of killing an unarmed Iraqi civilian and planting evidence on his body was found guilty on all charges Sunday.
Jurors deliberated for three hours before finding Sgt. Evan Vela of St. Anthony, Idaho guilty of murder without premeditation. He had previously been charged with premeditated murder, but that charge was changed during his court-martial in Baghdad.
Vela was also found guilty of making a false official statement and of conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline.
He faces a possible sentence of life in prison. After the verdict, proceedings entered a sentencing phase Sunday afternoon.
Sgt. Evan Vela, charged with killing the man and then planting an AK-47 on his body, appeared emotionless as he watched Sunday's arguments. The day before, he wept on the stand as he recalled the killing.
"It's a simple case," said Capt. Jason Nef, one of two military prosecutors. "The reason is because Vela confessed on the stand that he lied. He confessed he killed an unarmed Iraqi."
James Culp, Vela's attorney, argued that the case was more complex.
In the first two days of Vela's court-martial in Baghdad, Culp accused military investigators of incompetence and called a parade of witnesses to testify about the extreme mental and physical fatigue the snipers said they were under last spring, when the killing took place.
"This was an accident waiting to happen," Culp told the jury of seven men and one woman in his closing argument. "What happened on May 11 is clear: These men were extremely, extremely sleep deprived and nobody was thinking clearly."
On Saturday, the defense called two medical experts who supported their claim that Vela shot and killed the Iraqi civilian on May 11 because he was suffering from acute sleep deprivation and exhaustion. They said he later lied about the events in part because he suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Vela testified Saturday that he shot the Iraqi man, Genei Nasir al-Janabi, after he stumbled upon the snipers' hiding place near Iskandariyah, a town about 30 miles south of Baghdad. The soldiers had hiked through rough terrain and slept less than five hours in the previous three days, Vela said.
The short, stocky Army sergeant from St. Anthony, Idaho, sat nearly motionless on the stand during his nearly three hours of testimony Saturday, softly thumbing the hem of his camouflage jacket and looking straight ahead.
In a hushed voice, he said he could not recall the exact moment he killed al-Janabi.
"I don't remember pulling the trigger. I don't remember the sound of the shot," Vela said, tears rolling down his face, in response to his own lawyer's questions. "It took me a few seconds to realize that the shot came from my pistol."
Two other soldiers — Sgt. Michael Hensley, of Candler, N.C., and Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval Jr., of Laredo, Texas — have faced similar charges in al-Janabi's killing as well as two other slayings. They were acquitted of murder but convicted of planting evidence on the dead Iraqis.
Sandoval was sentenced to five months in prison, his rank was reduced to private and his pay was withheld. Hensley was sentenced to 135 days confinement, reduced in rank to sergeant and received a letter of reprimand.
The soldiers were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.
This is outrageous.
Accusing people of murder in a war is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.