By Eric M. Johnson
TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A U.S. Army sergeant was sentenced to life in prison without parole on Thursday for killing five fellow servicemen in a shooting spree in Iraq, one of the worst cases of violence by an American soldier against other U.S. troops.
In a deal that spared him the death penalty, Sergeant John Russell pleaded guilty last month to killing two medical staff officers and three soldiers at the Camp Liberty combat stress clinic, near Baghdad's airport.
The military has said the 2009 shooting might have been triggered by combat stress.
Russell faced an abbreviated court-martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state to determine the level of his guilt, and the military judge in the case ruled on Monday that the 48-year-old Texan had killed with premeditation.
At an early morning hearing at the Pacific Northwest military base, the judge tasked with determining Russell's sentence, Army Colonel David Conn, said Russell had been mentally ill at the time of the killings but was nevertheless responsible for his actions.
"You are not a monster," Conn said. "But you have knowingly and deliberately done incredibly monstrous things."
"Sergeant Russell, you have forced many to drink from a bitter cup. That cup is now before you," Conn said, before asking Russell, who wore green military dress, to stand.
He sentenced the 48-year-old Texas native to life in confinement without the possibility of parole, a reduction in rank and a dishonorable discharge from the Army, which is accompanied by forfeiture of pay.
Emotions were high in the courtroom, which was filled with more than a dozen family members of the victims and witnesses to the attack, several of whom testified this week to the personal pain they experienced from the attack.
One woman watching cried out with relief and clapped her hands as Conn gave the sentence.
STATE OF MIND
Russell's state of mind before, during and after the attack has been central to legal proceedings over the past year.
Conn, in ruling that the killings were premeditated, ultimately sided with prosecutors who said Russell tried to gain an early exit from the Army and then sought revenge on a mental health worker who would not help him achieve that goal.
"I have never been so aggrieved as I have been by learning the impact of Sergeant Russell's crimes on the lives of so many," Conn said before making his ruling, his voice flickering with emotion.
Prosecutors said Russell stole a Ford sport utility vehicle, loaded a 30-round magazine into an M16-A2 rifle, and drove roughly 40 minutes to the clinic to exact revenge. There, he smoked a cigarette, removed identification tags and the gun's optical sight and slipped into the clinic through a back entrance.
An Army forensic science officer who analyzed the scene after the attack testified that Russell killed with the tactical precision of a trained soldier.
Defense attorneys countered that Russell's mental health had been severely weakened by several combat tours, and that he was suicidal prior to the attack and provoked to violence by maltreatment at the hands of healthcare workers whom he sought for help.
In the final hour, filled with suicidal despair and rage, they said, he cracked.
A forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Sadoff of the University of Pennsylvania, concluded that Russell suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and psychosis at the time of the shootings and had death wishes related to his illnesses.
"My plan was to kill myself," Russell said during his plea hearing. "I wanted the pain to stop."
Those killed on May 11, 2009, were Major Matthew Houseal, 54; Commander Keith Springle, 52; Sergeant Christian Bueno-Galdos, 25; Specialist Jacob Barton, 20; and Private First Class Michael Yates, 19.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)