SEATTLE — On the day Sgt. John Russell allegedly walked into the mental health clinic at Camp Liberty in Baghdad and shot five U.S. service members to death, Pfc. Jacob Barton was just signing in at the front desk. It was the day after Mother’s Day, the first since his mother had died the previous year, and he was depressed.
“He didn’t have anyone to call,” said his sister, Hannah Barton, who had enlisted in the Army before her brother.
As Barton, 20, prepared to check his weapon at the desk, Russell began shooting, prosecutors say, and another soldier tried in vain to grab Barton’s weapon and return fire. Three of the four service members in the waiting room died in the shootings described in Monday’s Los Angeles Times. Barton was among the dead, as were two clinic staffers.
Since then, victims' families have grown increasingly frustrated at how long it has taken to bring Russell to trial. The court-martial scheduled to begin in May comes more than four years after the 2009 killings.
Barton said it has been irksome to see Russell’s lawyers argue that he was too mentally ill to be held responsible for his actions, and that he was provoked by alleged taunts and stern treatment from Army psychiatrists.
“The problem is that anybody else that was at that clinic that could vouch for the good treatment they received is dead,” Barton said.
“Everyone’s trying to blame the MPs and the doctors, instead of blaming Russell,” she said. “Me and thousands of other soldiers all went to combat stress clinics in Baghdad, Tikrit, everywhere. And we didn’t kill anyone.”
Navy Cmdr. Keith Springle, a 52-year-old clinical social worker who had seen Russell briefly before the killings and referred him to a psychiatrist, was also gunned down. Thomas Springle said he has watched his brother’s children “trapped in a time warp” waiting for their father’s killer to be tried.
“The evil act of John Russell could have been dealt with and put away by now if you had carried out your responsibilities and prosecuted this case in a reasonable time frame,” Springle said in a recent letter to Army commanders. “Do you have it anywhere in your heart to care about this?”
Springle said in an interview that many family members would be willing to accept a plea bargain that didn’t involve the death penalty if it would mean the trial would proceed and Russell would be behind bars for life.
Hannah Barton agreed.
“I think he should have to sit in a prison cell for the rest of his life and look at pictures of the people he killed,” she said. “One picture of each person, for the rest of his life. I think that would be just punishment.”