BAGHDAD — A U.S. Army staff sergeant who shot an unarmed, wounded Iraqi teenager to put the youth "out of his misery" pleaded guilty today to murder in an agreement guaranteeing that he would not serve more than 10 years in prison.
Staff Sgt. Johnny Horne Jr., 30, admitted that he killed Qassim Hassan, 16, after an Aug. 18 attack in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City. Horne insisted that the teenager was so badly wounded that he would have died anyway.
"I wanted to end his suffering," Horne said during a court martial trial in Baghdad. "With my weapon I fired a shot to his head. His attempts to breathe ceased."
U.S. military prosecutors did not call any of Hassan's relatives or Iraqis to testify during today's trial and sentencing hearing. In interviews with The Times in October, family members, including people who witnessed the shooting, insisted that Hassan's wounds were not serious and his life could have been saved with medical attention.
Horne pleaded guilty to one count of murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder.
He is among five U.S. soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment who are accused of killing four Iraqis over a 10-day period in August. The unit is based at Ft. Riley, Kan.
During a series of house-to-house searches Aug. 28, two other members of the unit were accused of executing two unarmed Iraqis inside their homes. The soldiers said the men threatened them with weapons, but one soldier later acknowledged that the story was fabricated.
Two additional soldiers face murder charges for killing fellow soldiers in Kansas.
The Aug. 18 shooting occurred after Horne's unit fired on a dump truck believed to be filled with insurgents planting roadside bombs. In fact, the truck carried young men and teenagers who had been hired to collect trash, according to witnesses and military investigators.
"We just lit it up," testified Spc. Joshua R. Sickels, a member of same company. "We let loose with everything."
At least seven Iraqis were killed and eight were wounded. Military prosecutors alleged that Horne, from Winston-Salem, N.C., conspired with Staff Sgt. Cardenas Alban of Carson and platoon leader 2nd Lt. Erick Anderson to kill the Iraqi. Alban and Anderson also are charged with premeditated murder.
By pleading guilty to a lesser charge, Horne will avoid the death penalty. He also agreed to cooperate in the murder cases pending against his fellow soldiers.
In an unsworn statement made during his sentencing hearing today, Horne said he felt terrible about the attack, particularly after approaching the scene and seeing dead and wounded children.
"My gut instinct was either the wrong vehicle got shot at or I don't know," he said today.
Horne said he came upon one badly burned body of a male whose internal organs had been blown away. Despite massive injuries, the victim was struggling to breathe, Horne said in his unsworn statement.
Horne said he turned for help to Alban and Anderson, his superior officer.
"My god, he's just a kid," Alban replied, according to Horne's account of the conversation.
"What do you want to do," Anderson asked Horne.
"I don't want to leave him like that," Horne said he replied.
"Do it," Anderson said.
Horne said the three men had a "mutual understanding" that Horne would shoot the victim. Alban fired first, unloading a burst of bullets from his rifle. Despite the volley of shots, Horne said Hassan was still breathing so he fired another shot.
Soldiers on the scene argued about Horne's actions, a debate that continues to divide the unit, soldiers said.
Some called the shooting a "mercy killing" and noted that Horne rushed to rescue the victims in the burning truck. "He pulled a small child out of a truck believed to be full of explosives," said Spc. Travis Vogt, a member of the unit.
Others testified they watched in horror at the shooting. "I was in disbelief," said Spc. William Davis, a member of the unit. "I couldn't believe it was happening."
Davis said Horne asked him first to shoot the Iraqi, but Davis refused. Horne denied that claim.
Spc. Shonta Williams said he was surprised that the victims were not rushed to hospitals or evacuated by helicopters.
A few days after the shooting, a soldier in Horne's unit slipped a note under the commander's door, saying "serious crimes" had been committed.
Horne's fate rests with a seven-member military panel that will issue the sentence. Under the plea agreement, Horne will not serve more than 10 years.
During today's sentencing hearing, Horne played an emotional taped appeal by his elderly parents and 6-year-old daughter, urging the panel to have leniency.
As Horne's trial continued, another soldier from the same unit defended himself in a separate courtroom about 100 yards away.
Staff Sgt. Michael P. Williams, 25, is charged with the premeditated murder of three Iraqis, including one man who was seen running from the dump truck Aug. 18. Williams opened fire on the man, despite the fact that another soldier claimed the man was waving a white flag and shouting, "Baby! Baby!"
"He was trying to inform us that we were shooting a truck full of children," Pfc. Gary Romriell testified. "He was unarmed. I didn't take him as hostile."
Other soldiers said the shooting was justified in the chaotic minutes after the attack on the dump truck because Williams could not be sure whether the man was a threat .
Williams' unit came under small-arms fire shortly after the man came running toward them from the truck, witnesses said.