Army sniper gets 10 years for killing of Iraqi civilian
U.S. Army Sgt. Evan Vela stood stone-faced Sunday as a court-martial jury sentenced him to 10 years in prison for fatally shooting an Iraqi man.
Vela, who had faced a maximum life sentence, was convicted earlier in the day of murder, making a false statement and planting a weapon in relation to the May 11 killing. The Army withheld his pay and benefits over the death of the Iraqi, who had stumbled into the hide-out of Vela’s five-man sniper team. Vela, 24, will receive a dishonorable discharge.
Vela’s wife, Alyssa Carnahan, wept as the verdict ended the last of the three cases involving Iraqis killed by the sniper section of the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment. Two other soldiers were acquitted of murder charges in the May 11 shooting and deaths the month before, but were convicted on lesser charges and demoted.
Outside the courthouse, the brother of Ghani Naser Janabi, the man killed by Vela, rejoiced at the ruling. “It is proof that my brother is not guilty. It was the sergeant,” Fadl Janabi said.
Vela’s lawyers contend that battalion leaders had pressured the snipers to get more kills. “They were picked as the hand of the battalion to return the blow,” said attorney James Culp, alluding to the high casualty rate in the battalion.
Culp argued that Vela, physically exhausted and sleep deprived, opened fire on instinct when his superior, Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley, commanded him to shoot.
Hensley told the court Friday that he had ordered Vela to kill the Iraqi because the detainee was making too much noise and might draw militants to their hidden camp in Jarf Sakhr, a village southwest of Baghdad where U.S. soldiers were conducting a counterinsurgency operation.
The prosecution said Vela was responsible for the death no matter how tired he was or how weak his emotional state. The sentence delivered a message that soldiers must be held accountable for their actions in Iraq, prosecutors said.
“What is a human life worth? That is what Sgt. Vela took,” prosecutor Maj. Charles Kuhfuhl told the court as it decided sentencing.
Iraq’s human rights minister, Wijdan Salim, attended the trial Friday, making it clear that the government cared about such cases after previous trials of soldiers on charges of killing or abusing Iraqis had resulted in dismissals or light sentences.
Vela had played a pivotal role in the trials of Hensley and then-Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval Jr. Vela broke down on the stand at Sandoval’s trial describing how Hensley had directed him to shoot the Iraqi. His testimony largely cleared Sandoval.
At Hensley’s trial, Vela claimed that he could not remember anything other than firing his pistol.
Vela’s case will automatically receive a review from an Army appeals board. He will be returned to detainment facilities in Kuwait. The U.S. military will decide later where to hold him.
His case headed to trial after a series of legal battles with Vela’s commanders from the Multi-National Division Center. Most recently, a military judge ruled that the division should grant immunity to Hensley and Sandoval to testify at the trial after it had initially refused the request.
The three sniper cases raised serious questions about practices used in Iraq. Hearings revealed that the sniper unit had planted weapons on bodies to shore up the legitimacy of shootings and had sought approval to start a baiting program in which they would plant weapons and then shoot any Iraqi who picked them up. It remains unclear whether it was put in action.
Vela’s wife and some of his fellow soldiers expressed shock over his conviction on the murder charge.
Carnahan, who has two children -- Vela’s 4-year-old stepson and his daughter born in March -- cried on the stand as she testified before sentencing. “I want the entire world to know he is a wonderful father and husband,” she said.
Sniper section veterans called the verdict unduly harsh.
“This war doesn’t provide the luxury to be perfect,” colleague Sgt. Anthony Murphy said before the sentencing.
For his part, Vela took the stand to explain himself. He acknowledged the pain he had caused the family of his victim and asked forgiveness.
“When I came over to Iraq, I didn’t come over to do the wrong thing,” Vela said. “My experiences in Iraq is with me every day, not just May 11. They are there when I sleep and when I wake up. I have to live with this every day for the rest of my life.
“I am truly sorry for what happened,” he said. “I wish I could say more.”