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Soldier said to have used comrade's rifle in Iraq shootings

Sgt. John M. Russell, the Army sergeant accused of killing five fellow soldiers in Iraq, is seen in a military photo provided by his father,
Sgt. John M. Russell, the Army sergeant accused of killing five fellow soldiers in Iraq, is seen in a military photo provided by his father,

By Laura L. Myers

TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - An Army prosecution witness identified a rifle used in a shooting rampage at a military combat stress center in Baghdad as his, and testified on Tuesday that it had been taken from him on the day of the spree by accused killer Sergeant John Russell.

Russell, of the 54th Engineer Battalion based in Bamberg, Germany, is accused of killing five fellow servicemen in 2009 in an attack the military said at the time could have been triggered by combat stress.

He faces five charges of premeditated murder, one charge of aggravated assault and one charge of attempted murder in connection with the shootings, and could face the death penalty if convicted.

Tuesday's testimony by staff sergeant Enos Richard - and the pictures of the M-16 rifle he said was his - came during a pre-trial, evidentiary hearing in Washington state and could figure prominently as evidence in court martial proceedings slated for next month.

Richard had been assigned to drive Russell to the stress center on the day of the shooting. A spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq said in 2009 that a commander had earlier determined that it was best Russell have his own weapon taken away.

The state of Russell's mind has been the focus of legal proceedings over the past year, and Tuesday's hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma comes at a sensitive time for the Army.

The Pacific Northwest base, one of the nation's largest, is also the home base of Robert Bales, who is accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers last March and is scheduled to face a court martial in September.

In both cases, lawyers or the military have suggested post-traumatic stress disorder may have been a factor.

Russell was arrested outside of the clinic shortly after the shots were heard, Major General David Perkins, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, said in 2009.

PTSD AND PSYCHOSIS

During legal proceedings in November, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Robert Sadoff said he concluded Russell was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and psychosis at the time of the shootings. He also said Russell suffered from "dissociative disorder," or a lack of memory about the incident.

Moreover, Sadoff harshly criticized a psychologist and a psychiatrist on the staff at Camp Victory for what he called "inexcusable treatment" of Russell days before the shooting in which he experienced a "lack of compassion."

Two of the five people killed in the shooting were medical staff officers at the counseling center for troops experiencing combat stress. The others were soldiers.

Judge Colonel David Conn admitted prosecution evidence on Tuesday that included photos of the rifle used in the killings, as well as the rifle's scope, a patrol cap, name tag and a cigarette butt.

Conn also asked Russell, who wore a green military uniform and glasses, whether he wanted military defense attorney Captain Ben Hillner, who has capital punishment legal expertise, to remain on his team of three lawyers.

Russell's civilian defense attorney James Culp has indicated he and Hillner have differed on legal strategy.

"I would like him to stay aboard, your honor," Russell said, in a soft-spoken voice.

Culp, who has outlined a defense based on Russell's declining mental state, entered no plea for Russell in a November hearing - standard practice in U.S. military justice procedure.

If the defense can persuade a military jury that Russell was not in possession of his senses at the time of the shooting, then it would make a death sentence less likely.

(Additional reporting by Laura L. Myers; Writing by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Jackie Frank)

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