U.S. soldier guilty in teen's death

Army sergeant admits he killed unarmed Iraqi during August attack

December 11, 2004|By Edmund Sanders | Edmund Sanders,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A U.S. Army staff sergeant who shot an unarmed, wounded Iraqi teenager to put the youth "out of his misery" pleaded guilty to murder yesterday 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 his unit attacked a group of Iraqis on Aug. 18 in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City. Horne insisted that the teenager was so badly wounded that he would have died.

"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 yesterday's trial and sentencing hearing. In interviews with the Los Angeles Times in October, family members, including people who witnessed the shooting, insisted that Hassan's wounds were not serious and that 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 10 days in August. The unit is based in Fort Riley, Kan.

Two other members of the unit are accused of executing two unarmed Iraqis inside their homes during a series of house-to-house searches Aug. 28. The soldiers said the men threatened them with weapons, but one soldier later acknowledged that the story was fabricated.

Two additional soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment face murder charges for killing fellow soldiers in Kansas.

The Aug. 18 killing 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, witnesses and military investigators said.

At least seven Iraqis were killed and eight wounded. Military prosecutors alleged that Horne, from Winston-Salem, N.C., conspired with Staff Sgt. Cardenas Alban of Carson, Calif., 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 yesterday, Horne said that he felt terrible about the attack, particularly after approaching the scene and seeing dead and wounded children.

Horne said he came upon the badly burned body of a male whose internal organs had been blown away. Despite extensive 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.

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."

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.

Meanwhile, the U.S. command said two soldiers died Thursday and four were injured when an AH-64 Apache helicopter crashed into a UH-60 Black Hawk chopper that was on the ground at an airfield in the northern city of Mosul.

A U.S. Marine was also killed in action in volatile Anbar province west of Baghdad.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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