- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

VILSECK, GERMANY (AP) - The lawyer for a U.S. Army master sergeant accused of hatching a plan to kill four bound and blindfolded Iraqis in 2007 continued Tuesday to suggest that there was no physical evidence the killings even happened.

At a U.S. Army court-martial for Master Sgt. John Hatley, David Court questioned many soldiers, several of whom insisted they had not seen anyone shot dead, as alleged, and then dumped in a canal in Baghdad’s West Rasheed neighborhood.

The bodies of the victims have also never been found. Court argued that Army prosecutors are relying only on circumstantial evidence and conflicting testimony from this week and other courts-martial.

Jennifer O’Connor, an former special agent with the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, also acknowledged Tuesday there was nothing in the way of hard evidence to determine if the killings even took place.

“You found no bodies, no brass (bullet casings), no blood at the scene?” Court asked. “You have no witnesses, no aggrieved family members? Did you find any evidence?”

“No, we did not, sir,” O’Connor replied, adding that divers searching the canal found no bodies. She had been assigned to assist the investigation in Baghdad but has since left the Army.

Army prosecutors have alleged that Hatley oversaw the shootings of the detainees, telling a jury of eight officers and non-commissioned officers that the well-liked career soldier _ with 20 years in the Army _ told his comrades they were going to “take care” of the Iraqis and killed them.

But Court has discounted the claims. On Tuesday, he asked Staff Sgt. Jess Cunningham, who was part of Hatley’s unit, if he witnessed any shootings by Hatley and two others _ Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Mayo and then-Sgt. Michael Leahy.

Mayo was sentenced to 35 years in prison, and Leahy to life in prison, both with the possibility of parole, after they were convicted of the murders at separate courts-martial. Mayo pleaded guilty.

“Again, to your personal knowledge, no one died at the canal that night?” Court asked in the hearing room at the U.S. Army’s Rose Barracks in southern Germany.

“No, sir,” Cunningham said flatly as Army Judge Col. Jeffrey Nance listened intently.

Hatley, 40, has pleaded not guilty to charges of premeditated murder, conspiracy to commit premeditated murder and obstruction of justice in the alleged shootings that took place in spring 2007. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

He also faces charges of murder stemming from a separate incident in January 2007.

According to testimony at previous courts-martial, at least four Iraqis were taken into custody in spring 2007 after an exchange of fire with Hatley’s unit and the discovery of weapons in a building where suspects had fled.

The detainees were taken to the unit’s base for questioning and processing, though there wasn’t enough evidence to hold them for attacking the unit. Later that night patrol members took the men to a remote area and shot them so that they would not be able to attack U.S. forces again, according to testimony.

Two more soldiers pleaded guilty in the spring incident, one to conspiracy to commit premeditated murder and one to accessory to murder, and were sentenced to prison last year. Two others, including Cunningham, had charges of conspiracy to commit premeditated murder dropped this year.

All were with the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division in Baghdad. The unit is now part of the Germany-based 172nd Infantry Brigade.

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