By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE, April 22 (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier is expected to plead guilty on Monday to shooting dead five fellow servicemen at a military counseling center in Iraq, in a plea deal his defense attorneys reached with Army prosecutors to avoid capital punishment.
Army Sergeant John Russell is accused of killing two medical staff officers and three soldiers at Camp Liberty, adjacent to the Baghdad airport, in a 2009 shooting spree the military said at the time could have been triggered by combat stress.
Russell is to plead guilty to five counts of intentional murder, one count of attempted murder, and one count of assault at a hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, according to his civilian defense lawyer, James Culp.
If presiding judge Army Colonel David Conn accepts the plea, Russell will still face a trial to decide the degree of his guilt and, crucially, whether he acted on impulse, as his defense attorneys argue, or with malice of forethought, as alleged by military prosecutors.
The choice would then be between a verdict of premeditated murder or the lesser offense of intentional murder to which Russell has agreed to plead guilty. His prison term would hinge on that finding. The death penalty would no longer be considered, as would a not-guilty verdict or insanity plea.
"It's at issue whether or not he pre-meditated the killings of these people or whether he snapped and killed these people out of rage that was linked to his own personal despair," Culp told Reuters last week.
An Army spokesman has declined to discuss the status of the case.
Defense attorneys have said Russell, who was attached to the 54th Engineer Battalion based in Bamberg, Germany, suffered a host of mental ailments after several combat tours and was suicidal prior to the attack.
An independent forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Sadoff, has concluded that Russell suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and psychosis at the time of the shootings. Sadoff suggested Russell was provoked to violence by maltreatment at the hands of mental health personnel he sought for treatment at Camp Liberty.
On Monday, Conn is to question Russell to determine whether the circumstances of the shooting support a guilty plea and that Russell believes he is guilty. He will then decide whether Russell will be tried before a judge alone or a jury.
Either way, a trial is still scheduled to begin May 6. (Reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Tim Dobbyn)