VILSECK, Germany — Prosecutors have only circumstantial evidence that Master Sgt. John Hatley executed several detainees during his unit’s last deployment to Iraq, his attorney said during the first day of Hatley’s court-martial on charges of premeditated murder.

Most premeditated murder cases require an "ABC" of evidence — an autopsy, a body and a cause of death, David Court told the jury.

In this case, the government has not found the bodies of the alleged victims or even identified them and, consequently, there have been no autopsies or causes of death identified, Court said.

Hatley, 40, is the third soldier from the 172nd Infantry Brigade to stand trial for premeditated murder in the alleged deaths of four Iraqi detainees in March or April 2007. The others, Sgt. 1st Class Joseph P. Mayo, 27, and Sgt. Michael Leahy, 28, were convicted on the charges and received lengthy prison terms. Hatley has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Mayo, who pleaded guilty to the charges, received 35 years with the possibility of parole, while Leahy, who had confessed to Army investigators, was found guilty and received life in prison with the possibility of parole.

But the government has no direct evidence that Hatley killed the detainees, Court said during his opening arguments, "... just assumptions based on testimony that he shot two people."

The government has no proof that the people who were allegedly shot actually died, Court said. Hatley faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

"The testimony you will hear will be circumstantial evidence. Much of the testimony will be from witnesses promised immunity who have a motive to help the government, who have lied under oath in the past and who have personal motives to make Hatley look like the bad guy," he said.

In his opening statement, prosecutor Capt. Derrick Grace tried to paint Hatley as the ringleader of the alleged execution-style shootings.

Grace said Hatley told other soldiers that they were going to "take care" of four men, whom they captured with a large cache of weapons and ammunition after a patrol came under fire. Grace said the Company A soldiers took the detainees to the canal where Hatley, Mayo and Leahy shot them.

After returning to their combat outpost, Hatley told the soldiers, "if anybody has a problem or issues tell them to come see me," Grace told the jury.

Hatley also is accused of killing a wounded detainee in a separate incident in January 2007.

But Court called Hatley an exemplary soldier with almost 20 years’ service.

"He has done just about everything an infantry sergeant can do," Court said. "He’s a Joe’s first sergeant. He was first into a building to make sure there were no IEDs (improvised explosive devices). He took care of his soldiers personally. He has been the epitome of an NCO (noncommissioned officer) for 15 years."

During the proceeding, Hatley, a stocky NCO with a flat-top haircut, listened intently to the testimony.

Leahy was the first witness called to testify.

He told the court that, in the January 2007 incident, he was providing medical treatment to a badly wounded detainee in the back of a Bradley when the vehicle stopped in the street.

"He (the detainee) had a pulse (but)... he was crashing pretty bad and wasn’t going to make it," he said.

Hatley dragged the detainee out of the Bradley, Leahy said, adding that he heard two shots after he got out but did not see the shots fired. After that, he helped Hatley put the detainee, who had a newly visible head wound and no pulse, into a body bag, he said.

Under cross examination for the defense, Leahy admitted that what he told the court differed from a previous sworn statement to Criminal Investigation Command agents. At that time, he described seeing Hatley shoot the detainee twice in the chest.

In the March or April 2007 incident in which the four detainees were killed, Leahy described the men’s capture with a large cache of weapons and ammunition, after a patrol came under fire. After taking the detainees back to the COP, the patrol went back out, he said.

Leahy said Hatley told him: "We are going to go take care of those guys."

At the canal, the detainees were pulled out of a Bradley and lined up with Hatley, Mayo and Leahy behind them, he said.

"I heard shots from my right, and then I fired my weapon. The detainee I had shot fell back on me. The detainee to my right flinched or moved or something and out of instinct I turned and shot him," Leahy said.

The second detainee that Leahy shot fell to the ground moaning until Hatley fired two shots into the detainee’s chest, he said.

Back at the base Hatley told the men who were on the patrol: "This was done ... for all the (expletives) who think they can shoot at us," Leahy said.

"I believed those guys were a threat to us. If what happened didn’t happen we or other units would have lost more soldiers. I still believe those guys were bad guys who were a threat to us," he said.

Several other members of Hatley’s former unit, Company A, 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment have been convicted for roles in the incident.

His trial is scheduled to continue throughout the week.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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