An Army interrogator convicted of killing an Iraqi general by stuffing him face-first into a sleeping bag can remain in the military and does not have to go to jail, a court-martial jury ruled Monday night.
The sentence was a stunning reprieve for Chief Warrant Officer Lewis E. Welshofer Jr., 43, who a few days ago faced possible life in prison and the dubious distinction of being the highest-ranking soldier tried on charges of murdering an Iraqi detainee.
The jury Saturday instead found him guilty of the lesser charges of negligent homicide and dereliction of duty, which carried a maximum three-year prison sentence and dismissal from the service. A dismissal would have denied Welshofer, a 19-year veteran, the military pension that he will qualify for in July.
After emotional pleas from Welshofer and his wife for leniency, the jury ruled Monday night that the interrogator must forfeit $6,000 of his salary over the next four months, receive a formal reprimand and spend 60 days restricted to his home, office and church.
The sentence must be reviewed by the base commander, Maj. Gen. Robert W. Mixon Jr. Mixon could order a lighter sentence or set aside the verdict, but he cannot order a harsher sentence, defense lawyer Frank Spinner said.
The courtroom, packed with soldiers and officers who had testified on Welshofer's behalf, broke out in applause when the sentence was read. Welshofer stood quietly until the jury left, then hugged his lawyers and kissed his wife.
The jury apparently agreed with defense arguments that Welshofer had believed he was following orders to use creative interrogation techniques when he put Iraqi Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush face-first in a sleeping bag, wrapped him in electrical wire and sat on his chest in November 2003. The 57-year-old general died after 20 minutes in the bag.
"When you're going to send our men and women over there to fight and put their lives on the line, you've got to back them up, you've got to give them clear rules and you've got to give them room to make mistakes and not treat them like criminals," Spinner said after the sentence was read.
Prosecutors said they would have no comment.
Hours earlier, prosecutor Capt. Elana Matt asked the jury for a two-year prison term and said Welshofer did not deserve to remain in the military.
"The reputation of the Army has been eroded by Mr. Welshofer's action ... and society needs to know that that will not be tolerated," she said. "Now's your chance to tell society that when we say it, we mean it."
Also Monday, one of the six officers on the jury, Capt. Lynne Morehouse, wrote a note to the judge asking whether she could reconsider the verdict. The note, dropped on her way into the courtroom for the bailiff to pick up, was sealed by Judge Col. Mark Toole, and he said it was too late to change her vote.
In November 2003, Mowhoush surrendered to U.S. military forces in western Iraq. Welshofer was in charge of the interrogation of the general, a Saddam Hussein confidant who was believed to be leading the burgeoning insurgency in the city of Al Qaim.
Witnesses testified that Welshofer stood by while Iraqi nationals, reportedly in the employ of the CIA, beat the general for about 30 minutes with rubber hoses. The next day, Welshofer took the general to the roof of the prison and, while other soldiers held him down, poured water on his face.
The general did not answer questions, so the following morning Welshofer turned to what was dubbed "the sleeping bag technique." Invented by another interrogator who recalled how his older brother used to stuff him in a sleeping bag to induce claustrophobia, the technique had been approved by Welshofer's supervisor.
The day after the general's death, prosecutors said, Welshofer asked for another sleeping bag so he could continue using the technique on others.
"Lesson not learned," Matt told jurors Monday. "Don't give him a chance to use that second sleeping bag."
Welshofer had contended that he was following vague instructions from U.S. commanders in Iraq to "take the gloves off" and break detainees to obtain more information about the insurgency that was killing increasing numbers of U.S. troops.
Welshofer and his wife, Barbara, have three children, and his deployment in Iraq had been tough on the family, she said Monday. She said that the family had spent all of its savings on his defense.