FORT STEWART, GA. (AP) - An Army sergeant charged with killing two U.S. soldiers at their patrol base in Iraq opened fire to protect himself, his defense attorney said at the end of a hearing to determine if the case goes to a court-martial.
Sgt. Joseph Bozicevich, 39, of Minneapolis would face life in prison or the death penalty if Fort Stewart’s commanding general chooses to put him on trial for premeditated murder.
Bozicevich is charged with the Sept. 14 slayings of his squad leader, Staff Sgt. Darris Dawson, and a fellow four-man team leader, Sgt. Wesley Durbin, at a patrol base south of Baghdad.
During a three-day hearing, similar to a civilian grand jury, soldiers testified the fatal shots were fired after Dawson and Durbin went to talk to Bozicevich about poor performance and to temporarily remove him from patrol duty.
“Something happened in that room to cause Sgt. Bozicevich to feel he had to use his weapon,” defense attorney Charles Gittins said in a brief closing statement Wednesday.
It was the first time Bozicevich’s attorneys have hinted at what their defense will be if the case goes to a court-martial. Bozicevich declined the judge’s offer to speak at the end of the hearing.
Soldiers testified that Durbin, 26, of Dallas was found shot in the neck and chest inside the security station where Bozicevich was on duty. Dawson, 24, of Pensacola, Fla., fell wounded outside. Witnesses testified to seeing Bozicevich run after Dawson and stand over him with a rifle.
Gittins said testimony from an Iraqi interpreter at the base indicated Bozicevich was acting in self defense.
The interpreter, Hiader Hamze Muter, said he saw Bozicevich shooting and pursuing Dawson, then saw Bozicevich double back toward the building they were running from, where Durbin was shot. He said he heard three more shots before Bozicevich returned to stand over Dawson.
“Obviously, Sgt. Bozicevich was concerned about his rear flank if he was running one way, then the other way,” Gittins said. “Clearly, Sgt. Bozicevich went back to protect his rear from Sgt. Durbin.”
Gittins did not indicate in his closing statement which soldier he believed to have shot Dawson. He declined to comment after the hearing.
Evidence at the hearing showed Bozicevich, Dawson and Durbin were all armed with rifles at the time.
Maj. Charles Kuhfahl, an Army prosecutor, told the judge “ample evidence” had been presented to recommend a general court-martial for Bozicevich.
Though no forensic evidence was presented at the hearing, Kuhfahl said Army firearms examiners were able to connect three bullets recovered _ including one taken from Durbin’s spine _ to the gun that fired them.
“All three of those rounds came from the weapon assigned to Sgt. Bozicevich,” Kuhfahl said.
Soldiers in Bozicevich’s 3rd Infantry Division unit _ Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment _ said Dawson planned to issue Bozicevich with written critiques for leaving a soldier behind during a foot patrol the night before the shootings and for losing one his grenades.
Durbin was to replace Bozicevich as a team leader temporarily on patrol duty.
Of the 33 U.S. soldiers who testified, none witnessed Durbin being shot and only one said he saw Bozicevich shoot Dawson.
Staff Sgt. John Dresel testified that he arrived at the scene just in time to see Bozicevich fire two shots into Dawson, who was sprawled on the ground. Dresel said he then tackled Bozicevich to restrain him.
Gittins said the judge should view Dresel as an unreliable witness. The Iraqi interpreter, the only other witness to identify Bozicevich as the man chasing Dawson, said Bozicevich was tackled before he could fire at Dawson from close range.
Dresel also testified he heard Bozicevich say “I’m glad they’re dead” after the shootings, and named several soldiers he believed had heard it as well.
The judge, Col. Michael J. Hargis, recalled five soldiers to the witness stand Wednesday and asked if they had heard Bozicevich say such words. All of them said no.
Numerous witnesses testified that Bozicevich shouted “Kill me!” after he was restrained.
Russ Bynum has covered the military based in Georgia since 2001.