Army sniper on trial tells of killing Iraqi

Times Staff Writer

Army Sgt. Evan Vela held back tears as he said at his court-martial Saturday that he had killed an Iraqi man who had stumbled into his sniper team's camp.

Vela told the court on the second day of his trial that his superior officer, Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley, ordered him to shoot the Iraqi.

"I thought he was going to let him go," said Vela, who is charged with murder, planting a weapon and making false statements. "I heard the word 'shoot.' My next memory is the man was dead. It took me a minute for me to realize the shot came from the pistol in my hand. I don't remember pulling the trigger."

Vela's case is the last of three murder trials involving the sniper team. Hensley and another one of his soldiers, Jorge G. Sandoval Jr., have been convicted on lesser charges and demoted -- Hensley is now a sergeant, and Sandoval, a specialist at the time of the shooting, is a private.

The shootings have raised questions about the supervision of the snipers. On Friday, Hensley described planting weapons on bodies as an accepted tactic. Soldiers at pretrial hearings for Vela described seeking clearance for a "baiting" program, in which snipers would plant weapons and shoot Iraqis who picked them up, but it is unclear whether it was ever implemented.

Vela, whose attorneys portray him as a physically drained soldier battling post-traumatic stress disorder, broke down on the stand at Sandoval's trial, describing how Hensley had commanded him to shoot the Iraqi in the May 11 incident. But at Hensley's trial, Vela said he could not recall anything other than firing his pistol.

On Saturday, Vela said he was in a daze when the Iraqi entered the team's camp. Vela said he thought the man posed a danger, but had no idea that Hensley planned to kill him.

Asked whether he would have followed Hensley's orders to shoot if he had not been physically depleted and suffering from severe sleep deprivation, Vela bit his lip and said, "I wouldn't have done it."

The defense called a forensic psychiatrist, who testified that Vela first showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder last winter. Prosecutors have sought to ridicule Vela's claim that he didn't know what he was doing.

A verdict is expected today.

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ned.parker@latimes.com

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