By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier accused of killing five fellow servicemen at a military combat stress center in Baghdad is set to appear at a pre-trial hearing on Tuesday as Army prosecutors and defense attorneys present motions concerning his mental health.
Sergeant John Russell, who could face the death penalty if convicted, is accused of going on a shooting spree at Camp Liberty, near the Baghdad airport, in a 2009 assault the military said at the time could have been triggered by combat stress.
The state of Russell's mind has been the focus of legal proceedings over the past year in Washington state, after the soldier's attorney wrote in a memo that his client was "facing death because the Army's mental health system failed him."
Last May, Russell was ordered to stand trial in a military court, and the court martial is set to begin next month.
The hearing, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, comes at a sensitive time for the Army and its troubled Pacific Northwest outpost, one of the nation's largest.
Lewis-McChord is the home base of Robert Bales, who is accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers last March and is scheduled to face a court martial in September. In both cases, lawyers or the military have suggested post-traumatic stress disorder may have been a factor.
In the Baghdad case, Russell was ordered in December to undergo forensic hypnosis in a bid to unlock buried memories of the shooting. He has also been ordered to undergo a sophisticated brain scan and a battery of psychological tests.
During proceedings in November, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Robert Sadoff said he concluded Russell was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and psychosis at the time of the shooting spree. He also said Russell suffered from "dissociative disorder," or a lack of memory about the shootings.
Moreover, Sadoff harshly criticized a psychologist and a psychiatrist on the staff at Camp Victory for what he called "inexcusable treatment" of Russell days before the shooting in which he experienced a "lack of compassion."
Two of the five people killed in the shooting were medical staff officers at the counseling center for troops experiencing combat stress. The others were soldiers.
Defense lawyer James Culp has said that Russell suffered from depression, thoughts of suicide, anxiety and stress from multiple deployments, and suffered "at least one traumatic experience involving civilian casualties" and "mass grave sites" while serving in Bosnia and Kosovo during 1998 and 1999.
Culp, who has outlined a defense based on Russell's declining mental state, entered no plea for Russell in a November hearing - standard practice in U.S. military justice procedure.
If the defense can persuade a military jury that Russell was not in possession of his senses at the time of the shooting, then it would make a death sentence less likely.
Russell, of the 54th Engineer Battalion based in Bamberg, Germany, faces five charges of premeditated murder, one charge of aggravated assault and one charge of attempted murder in connection with the May 2009 shootings.
On Tuesday morning, a judge is expected to hear several motions by both prosecutors and attorneys representing Russell in preparation for the trial, according to an Army spokesman. The exact object of the motions has not been made public.
The U.S. Army - grappling with a spike in military suicides - on Friday said it must reform its behavioral health care system, which is hobbled by widespread confusion over the resources available to help soldiers and clerical systems, and improperly trained and utilized staff.
Lewis-McChord's on-base hospital has found itself at the center of controversy last year after it was revealed that a team of forensic psychiatrists had reversed some soldiers' diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder.
(Additional reporting by Laura L. Myers; Writing by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)