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U.S. Army survivor of Iraq killings recalls gunman's 'chuckle'

By Eric M. Johnson

TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A survivor of a shooting spree that killed five U.S. servicemen at a combat stress clinic in Iraq testified on Tuesday that he remembered the gunman, a fellow soldier, chuckling after he shot an unarmed man who had been trying to hide.

U.S. Army Sergeant John Russell pleaded guilty last month to killing two medical staff officers and three soldiers at Camp Liberty, adjacent to the Baghdad airport, in a 2009 shooting the military has said could have been triggered by combat stress.

He is facing a streamlined court martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state to determine the level of his guilt, a question that will hinge largely on whether the military judge finds he acted with premeditation, as prosecutors say, or on impulse, as the defense argues.

Army sergeant Dominic Morales, working at the clinic at the time of the attack, recalled that he hid under a desk beside another soldier and heard shots ring out and said he could smell gun powder.

Morales testified that Russell shot a soldier hiding near a filing shelf one time and chuckled as he moaned "Oh God, oh God..." and then shot him again.

"I heard Sergeant Russell chuckle ... an evil chuckle," Morales said. "To me, a frightening chuckle."

Russell then approached his hiding place and shot the soldier next to him, specialist Jacob Barton, whose dead body fell onto him.

Seconds later, with Russell out of sight, Morales sprinted out of hiding but the soldier fired at least two bullets at him.

The testimony came on the second day of a court martial that is expected to focus largely on Russell's state of mind at the time of the shooting, which marked one of the worst episodes of soldier-on-soldier violence in the Iraq war.

Defense attorney James Culp later established through questioning Morales that nightmares jogged his memory of Russell's laugh.

CALM DEMEANOR

Military prosecutors have focused this week on the more than 40 minutes Russell had to consider his actions as he drove back to the clinic with a stolen SUV and rifle and on his calm, stone-faced demeanor as he carried that rifle in a combat-ready position as he slipped into the clinic through a rear entrance.

Russell, who agreed to plead guilty in a deal that will spare him the death penalty, faces up to life in confinement without the possibility of parole, forfeiture of pay and a dishonorable discharge.

Defense lawyers, who had not yet made an opening statement, have said Russell suffered a host of mental ailments after several combat tours and was suicidal before the attack. With his mind damaged and unable to get the help he needed, they say, he cracked.

An independent forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Sadoff of the University of Pennsylvania, concluded that Russell suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and psychosis at the time of the shootings.

Sadoff suggested Russell, who was attached to the 54th Engineer Battalion based in Bamberg, Germany, was provoked to violence by maltreatment at the hands of mental health personnel at Camp Liberty.

The presiding judge, Army Colonel David Conn, ruled on Monday that when Sadoff testifies he can draw upon another doctor's findings that the soldier had "brain abnormalities" in areas that govern behavior and emotion. Sadoff used that analysis in his own broader psychiatric evaluation.

Prosecutors also asked staff sergeant Derrick Flowers, who jumped out of a window to escape the attack, whether Russell's gun shots were "erratic or controlled."

"It was controlled, sir," Flowers said.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Andrew Hay)

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