Friday, May 22, 2009

PADUCAH, Ky. (AP) — An ex-soldier convicted of raping and killing an Iraqi teen and murdering her family has been sentenced to life in prison in a case that drew attention to the emotional and psychological strains on soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Steven Dale Green, 24, of Midland, Texas, was spared the death penalty Thursday after jurors couldn’t agree on a punishment for the brutal crime.

In March 2006, after an afternoon of card playing, sex talk and drinking Iraqi whiskey, Pfc. Green and three other soldiers went to the home of 14-year-old Abeer Qassim al-Janabi near Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad. Green shot and killed the teen’s mother, father and sister, then became the third soldier to rape the girl before shooting her in the face. Her body was then set on fire.

Federal jurors who convicted Green of rape and murder deliberated for more than 10 hours over two days on whether to give Green a death sentence or life in prison without parole. Since they could not unanimously agree on either sentence, life in prison had to be the verdict.

“It’s the better of two bad choices,” said his father, John Green, who sighed as the verdict was read.

His son will be sentenced Sept. 4 by U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell.

Green’s attorneys never denied his involvement in the attack, instead focusing on building a case that he didn’t deserve the death penalty. Former Marines and other soldiers Green served with testified that he faced an unusually stressful combat tour in Iraq’s “Triangle of Death” with a unit that suffered heavy casualties and didn’t receive sufficient leadership.

Jurors declined to comment as they were escorted out of the courthouse. A civilian jury decided Green’s case because he was out of the Army before he was charged.

According to the jury verdict forms, several panelists said the stress Green was under from combat and other areas of his life was a mitigating factor against a death sentence. Just as many cited the Army knowledge that he was having homicidal thoughts yet still returning him to the field.

Other mitigators included his bad home life, not being tried in a military court like the rest of the defendants and that he was influenced by his superiors during the attack. Two of the other soldiers convicted in the attack outranked Green and testified against him.

The issue of combat stress resulting from long and traumatic deployments came to the forefront again just as Green’s trial was entering the sentencing phase in Kentucky. Thousands of miles away in Iraq, an Army sergeant on his third tour of duty allegedly entered a military mental health clinic on May 11 and opened fire on his comrades, killing five of them, including a doctor who helped soldiers deal with stress.

Green had been deployed for about six months when he attacked the family. About three months before the murders, enemy attacks over 12 days killed two command sergeants, a lieutenant and a specialist in Green’s unit. Jurors also were told that Green’s unit was left alone to run a traffic checkpoint for several weeks without a break.

Even more of the defense’s case focused on the lack of military leadership in the unit and the Army’s failure to recognize Green could act on homicidal thoughts of killing Iraqi civilians that he expressed after several fellow soldiers had been killed.

Green was seen by Army mental health professionals, but a nurse practitioner sent him back to his unit with pills to help him sleep after he showed no signs of planning to act on those feelings, she testified.

The trial was held in western Kentucky because Green was a member of the 101st Airborne Division, based at Fort Campbell, Ky.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Marisa Ford said in a statement that prosecutors have “the utmost respect” for the jury’s sentencing decision.

One of Green’s attorneys, Darren Wolff of Louisville, said his client twice offered to plead guilty, but the U.S. Justice Department refused amid international pressure for a conviction.

“Mr. Green will spend the rest of his life in jail and the events of March 12, 2006, have forever changed the lives of many,” Wolff said. “It is a tragic case on so many levels.”

His brother, Doug Green, 26, said the jury reached the appropriate decision.

“I do think it gives him a chance to have some semblance of a life,” he said. “We’re grateful for that.”

Associated Press Writer Kristin M. Hall contributed to this report.

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