Soldier Goes On Trial For Murder

Tuesday, March 13th 2007, 5:40 am
By: News On 6

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (AP) _ The question at the heart of Staff Sgt. Ray Girouard's murder trial that started Tuesday is this: Who ordered the killing of three Iraqi captives?

Military prosecutors say it was Girouard, a 24-year-old squad leader who allegedly told his soldiers to cut the detainees free, kill them and then cover up the crime by faking an insurgent attack.

Girouard denies giving such an order and has pleaded not guilty to murder charges.

A hearing panel of five enlisted men and two officers _ the military equivalent of a jury _ was seated Tuesday morning. Judge Theodore Dixon denied last minute motions to call additional witnesses, and opening arguments were scheduled to begin later in the day.

Girouard is the last and most senior soldier from the 101st Airborne Division to face trial for the killings May 9 during a raid on a suspected insurgent camp outside of Samarra, Iraq.

Two other soldiers charged with murder in the incident _ Spc. William B. Hunsaker and Pfc. Corey Clagett _ pleaded guilty, cooperated with prosecutors and were sentenced to 18 years in military prison.

During their trials, both men said Girouard ordered the killings.

``Staff Sgt. Girouard gave no such order,'' said Anita Gorecki, Girouard's defense attorney. ``During their trials in which they pled guilty, (Hunsaker and Clagett) made statements which can only be labeled as fascinating.''

Hunsaker also testified that Girouard cut him on the face and arm to make it appear there was a struggle after Hunsaker and Clagett killed the detainees.

Another soldier, Spc. Juston R. Graber, testified that he shot one of the dying detainees after they had been wounded, but didn't witness the initial shooting. Graber pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and was sentenced to nine months in a military jail.

The soldiers had previously told investigators they were given rules of engagement by 3rd Brigade commander Col. Michael Steele to kill all military-age men. Steele has denied this, but invoked his right not to testify during a previous hearing in Iraq.

A judge ruled last week that Steele won't be forced testify, but defense attorneys could cross-examine the witnesses about their understanding of Steele's order.

Gene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said it has become common in military trials for soldiers to testify they were just following orders or rules of engagement. But it's not always an effective argument.

``If an order is illegal or commonly understood to be illegal, then it's not a defense that you acted in compliance of that order,'' Fidell said. ``The fact that such an order was given doesn't necessarily get anyone off the hook.''

Girouard's family and friends in Sweetwater, Tenn., have rallied around the soldier, saying the allegations don't make sense for a highly trained Army Ranger who had just begun a promising military career.

``He tried to teach all of his men everything he knew about being a Ranger, just to prepare them for what they were going to go into,'' his grandfather, Ron Bentley, told The Associated Press in an interview last month.