Wait for court-martial in fratricide case frustrates victim’s family
The grave of Navy Cmdr. Charles Keith Springle at Arlington National Cemetery. Springle died May 11, 2009, from wounds he sustained when the accused, Army Sgt. John M. Russell, allegedly entered a military clinic at Camp Liberty in Baghdad and shot and killed Springle and four other fellow servicemembers.
WASHINGTON — It’s been almost four years since the deadliest case of American fratricide in the Iraq War, and the Army sergeant accused of killing five of his fellow servicemembers has yet to face a court-martial.
The lengthy delay has one victim’s family questioning what, exactly, is keeping the Army from moving faster on the case.
“It’s just not justified. There’s really no good reason,” Tom Springle said. “We’ve waited long enough.”
His brother, Navy Cmdr. Charles Keith Springle, was among those killed in May 2009 at Camp Liberty in Baghdad when Sgt. John Russell allegedly opened fire on the combat-stress clinic there.
Finally, late last year, after years of delays on both sides, the court-martial date was set for March 11, but it was recently pushed back to late April because the prosecution hadn’t provided the defense with court-ordered funds for expert witnesses.
“I wouldn’t be afraid to bet money this April there’s still no court-martial,” Springle said.
The Springle family has company in their frustration with those still awaiting the trial of Maj. Nidal Hasan more than three years after he allegedly killed 13 people and wounded dozens of others in a shooting at Fort Hood in November 2009. So far, no court-martial dates have held up in that case either with delay after delay, and both groups of victims are angered by the drawn-out process that to them is seemingly without reason.
On Thursday, the military judge set a new date for the Hasan court-martial to begin May 29 with jury selection. The defense also argued for a change of venue, claiming Hasan couldn’t get a fair trial at Fort Hood, but the judge has not yet ruled. Should the court-martial be moved, the case could be delayed again.
Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, said the lack of urgency in trying cases like these is a big issue in the military justice system.
“I have to say it’s disturbing — and it ought to be disturbing to the families that this takes so long,” he said.
Judges have an obligation to keep both parties accountable and the system “moving forward at what is from the standpoint of the public a reasonable pace,” he said.
Springle, a retired Navy commander, said: “I think we all from the beginning trusted that the Army was gonna proceed with this case. We thought, ‘They’ll take care of it.’ ”
Now, as the fourth anniversary approaches, he wonders whether his ailing parents, who are in their 70s, will be around to see “the murderer of their son brought to justice.” His father had a pneumonia-induced heart attack last week.
Charles Keith Springle, 52, a clinical social worker, had volunteered to serve in Iraq after he spent time in Germany and saw the effects the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were having on returning soldiers.
“He begged them to send him,” Tom Springle said about his brother. “He felt like the guys who are having problems need somebody to try to help them.”
The man who is accused of killing him was one of those guys.
That’s a big reason why the case against Russell isn’t simple. The defendant has severe mental health issues, according to psychiatrists who have examined him, and for more than a year was ruled incompetent to stand trial. The investigation of the incident also took longer than normal because it happened in an active combat zone.
Shortly before the shooting, Russell had expressed suicidal thoughts to his chaplain, according to the Army investigation. He had gone to the combat stress clinic on several occasions but wasn’t satisfied with his treatment, and on the day of the shooting, he was kicked out for aggressive behavior.
His unit had taken away his weapon, but while being escorted by military police, the Army said, Russell allegedly stole a gun, went back to the clinic and started shooting.
Russell is charged with five counts of premeditated murder, one count of aggravated assault and one count of attempted murder. Despite a recommendation by the colonel who presided over the competency hearings that Russell’s “undisputed mental disease or defect” made the death penalty inappropriate in this case, the Army’s General Court Martial Convening Authority ruled in May it should be a capital case.
Russell’s civilian defense lawyer, James Culp, wrote in a memo in 2012 that Russell was “facing death because the Army’s mental health system failed him.”
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time of the shooting, now-retired Adm. Mike Mullen, told Congress that the shooting highlighted the risks of multiple combat deployments, which can drive servicemembers “to take their own lives” or “hurt others.” More needed to be done to treat combat stress, he said.
That failures in the Army’s treatment of PTSD might be aired in open court is one reason Springle speculates that the case hasn’t moved forward. He said he thinks the Army is purposefully stalling, because they don’t want Russell’s mental health issues to put a spotlight on wider problems in the service’s behavioral health system.
PTSD is likely to play a role in another high-profile murder case in the Army, as well. Lawyers for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who is accused of going on a civilian murder spree in Afghanistan in 2012, have said the soldier was suffering from combat stress at the time of the shootings. The Army arraigned Bales in January on 16 counts of premeditated murder, and his civilian lawyer told The Associated Press he would plead not guilty.
The Army judge ordered Bales to be mentally evaluated in what the military calls a “sanity board.”
During Russell’s sanity board, which took longer than average, a government doctor diagnosed Russell with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression with psychotic features, but found that he was still criminally responsible. Although Russell, who is in pretrial confinement at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, has not yet entered a plea, Culp has said he believes that his client has a good chance of being acquitted by reason of insanity.
That would make it the first time PTSD was successfully used to claim insanity, Fidell said based on his own research.
“I would consider it remarkable and surprising” if it were successful, he said. “That would be a significant development.”