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A preliminary military hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington continues today to determine whether then-staff sergeant (now sergeant first class) Michael Barbera should face a court-martial in the March 2007 slayings of two unarmed Iraqi brothers.
The brothers were herding cattle in Diyala Province, near where Barbera’s Army reconnaissance team was hiding. Prosecutors say the boys posed no threat, but that Barbera went down on one knee, pointed his rifle, and killed them anyway.
And there are allegations of a cover-up — two years after the killings, Army criminal investigators looked over the case, and Barbera was issued a letter of reprimand.
It wasn’t until an investigation from the Tribune-Review, a Pittsburgh newspaper, that the Army filed charges against Barbera, who could face life in prison if he’s convicted of premeditated murder.
News Tribune reporter Adam Ashton joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the case.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
A preliminary military hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state continues today to determine whether then-Staff Sergeant Michael Barbera should face a court-martial in the slaying of two unarmed Iraqi brothers. The brothers were herding cattle near where Barbera's Army reconnaissance team was hiding. Fellow troops say the boys were only 10 or 11 and posed no threat, but that Barbera shot and killed them anyway. The shootings were in 2007.
In 2009, some of Barbera's fellow soldiers came forward. And Army criminal investigators looked into the case but just issued Barbera a letter of reprimand. It wasn't until an investigation by Pittsburgh's Tribune-Review in 2012 that the Army filed charges against Barbera, who could face life in prison if he's convicted of premeditated murder.
Adam Ashton is with the Tacoma News Tribune in Washington state. And, Adam, tell us a little more about what prosecutors say happened that day in 2007.
ADAM ASHTON: Michael Barbera was in an eight-man reconnaissance team, and they were in a palm grove observing a hostile village. When you're in a reconnaissance team, you're not supposed to shoot your weapon at all because you don't want to draw attention to yourself. Four of the men were sleeping and four were awake. They saw a cattle approach, and they observed two cattle herders with the cows. And for some reason, Michael Barbera got up and shot the cattle herders.
Because Michael Barbera fired his weapon at the boys everyone in this Iraqi village knew where the American soldiers were, and the team had to flee immediately away from the scene. So the soldiers feel they were in danger because Michael Barbera shot these young men, not because the herders were a danger to them.
YOUNG: Barbera has not testified yet. But what has his defense said about the case against him?
ASHTON: So the Army looked into this case in 2009. In 2011, they concluded their investigation. They declined to press charges. The defense attorney, David Coombs, is saying this is old news, the Army has already brought - held him accountable for this event, and it found there's no crime. So they - it was kind of an argument that this was said and done, and we're only here because these guys blabbed to the press. That's basically what the defense is saying.
YOUNG: Well, in fact, Carl Prine, who was the lead reporter in the Tribune-Review investigation, which won investigative awards, he's actually a part of this hearing. He's a witness because Barbera allegedly threatened him?
ASHTON: Carl Prine testified on the first day of the hearing. He began this investigation in the fall of 2011, and he reached out to Michael Barbera. He said, I'm looking into this event in 2007. He sent a message over Facebook to Barbera. He said, I want to reach you. Michael Barbera allegedly replied, wrong guy. And then that night, Carl Prine's wife came home, and she heard a phone call on their home phone, picked it up and she received a threat to the effect of, your husband is looking into some shooting in 2007 in Iraq. For his own health, for your own personal safety, it's best for him to drop that investigation.
YOUNG: And this is an allegation from Carl Prine's wife.
ASHTON: Yeah. So after they got that phone call, they got their phone records and were able to take the phone number that was dialed to their house. And they actually matched it to Michael Barbera.
YOUNG: Yeah. Well, back to the hearing today. Some of the soldiers that were there that horrible night have been testifying. What are they saying about what they were thinking when this event took place?
ASHTON: Four soldiers have testified. Three soldiers said that they saw the boys walking toward the team. In fact, one of them had his weapon raised in case they were a threat. These soldiers saw the boys, said there's no weapon and they chose not to shoot. When they heard Michael Babera shoot, they actually questioned their own judgment, as in did I miss something? Did I miss a threat to my team? From that moment, they had to get out of their hiding place to cover to someplace else so they could get retrieved by an American force.
YOUNG: Wasn't there one soldier who immediately thought why are you doing this?
ASHTON: Right. Because he had his weapon on the herders looking for a threat. And then when he didn't see a weapon or any kind of harm coming to them, he just couldn't - didn't understand why Michael Barbera shot those young men.
YOUNG: Is Barbera saying that he thought he was being threatened?
ASHTON: Presumably, that's what he would say. Why else would you shoot someone coming at you?
YOUNG: Well, the soldiers who felt he wasn't, they weren't threatened. How has this impacted them?
ASHTON: Several of them are really haunted by these killings. They've said they had psychological counseling, nightmares. They say it's the root of the PTSD that they're experiencing seven years later.
YOUNG: And what, if anything, is the military saying about allowing this to go on so long and only issuing letter of reprimand initially?
ASHTON: Yeah. One thing that was really surprising to me was yesterday, they had the unit's cavalry squadron commander testify. Now, he's a brigadier general. The killings weren't reported at all to the command, not even that we had an engagement where we killed two Iraqis who had threatened us. They didn't report the incident in any way.
YOUNG: At all. Well, we know former Army medic Andrew Harriman testified that he thought he told another soldier to report the killings. But he said he thought his immediate commanders would have swept it under the rug. Was there a sense that it would have been futile to report it? Why didn't they report it?
ASHTON: Yesterday, the general who spoke said that they would never look away if an allegation was brought to them. For some reason, these four soldiers who have testified felt that that wasn't the case, that someone would overlook it. Also, there were some fatal engagements that killed some of their own team mates shortly after this incident in March 2007. So it's possible they just got too busy and were focused on other things and didn't want to bring this up at the time.
YOUNG: Well, we just want to note one thing. Carl Prine, the reporter for Pittsburgh's Tribune Review, who again broke this story in an investigative piece and is testifying at these hearings to see whether there will be a court martial, he is a former Marine.
ASHTON: Right. He is a former Marine in the early 1990s. He also served in the National Guard and was hurt in Iraq.
YOUNG: That's Adam Ashton of the Tacoma News Tribune in Washington state on the ongoing hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Adam, thank you.
ASHTON: Thank you.
YOUNG: And this note. We're watching another case today in the federal appeals court in South Florida, which is weighing when investigators should have access to cellphone records that can pinpoint a suspect's location. Judges heard arguments today in the case of Quartavious Davis who was sentenced to 162 years in prison for his role in a violent armed robbery gang. Key to his conviction, cellphone records showing he was near crimes when they occurred.
On his side, the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued that investigators should have to show probable cause and get a warrant from a judge before obtaining cellphone records. Prosecutors argue that a judge's order is sufficient. Well, two years ago, you'll remember the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that warrants are required before tracking devices can be put on suspect's cars. This case regarding the use of cellphone evidence may end up in the higher court as well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.