Sergeant Evan Vela is accused of murdering an unarmed Iraqi man and an attempted cover-up. He has admitted that he fired two bullets at point-blank range into a detainee's head but said he was following a direct order.
His court martial comes after those of two fellow snipers in an embarrassing saga which has blown the cover of an alleged classified 'baiting' programme in which snipers scatter ammunition, detonation cords or other items, then lie in wait to shoot insurgents who pick them up.
The tactic emerged earlier this year when Captain Matthew Didier, a platoon commander in an elite sniper unit known as the 'Painted Demons', told a military court: 'Baiting is putting an object out there that we know they will use, with the intention of destroying the enemy.
'Basically, we would put an item out there and watch it. If someone found the item, picked it up and attempted to leave with the item, we would engage the individual as I saw this as a sign they would use the item against US forces.'
Didier claimed that members of the US military's Asymmetric Warfare Group visited his unit in January and later supplied ammunition boxes filled with 'drop items' to be deployed as bait. Soldiers told the Washington Post that about a dozen platoon members were aware of the programme, and that others knew about the 'drop items' but did not know their purpose. Vela, team leader Michael Hensley and Jorge Sandoval were members of the 'Painted Demons', which had a reputation for notching 'kills' at a high rate in the so-called 'triangle of death' south of Baghdad. They were charged with the murders of three Iraqis during US operations in the spring.
Last week Hensley, an expert marksman from the 1st Battalion, 501st Airborne, was cleared of murder charges but reprimanded and demoted on lesser charges of planting an AK-47 rifle beside the body of a dead Iraqi and disrespecting an officer.
Last month Sandoval was found not guilty on two murder charges but was demoted from specialist to private and is serving a 44-day sentence for planting a detonation cord on the body of an Iraqi.
Vela is charged with premeditated murder, planting a weapon, making false statements and obstruction of justice. The first pre-trial hearing is today.
Lawyers for the snipers have argued that the baiting programme is relevant to their defence because it shows how officials backed unorthodox methods of killing not only insurgents but also unarmed men thought to be enemy combatants.
James Culp, Vela's attorney, has said: 'I don't know how far up the chain this baiting programme goes right now. I know the government is trying to dummy this down to the lowest level possible.'
He added: 'Our government is asking soldiers and Marines to make morally bruising decisions under the most horrific conditions imaginable. When the government doesn't like the results, they isolate and vilify the soldier while hiding behind security clearances, classifications and unreasonable expectations.'
Vela's father, Curtis Carnahan, told the Washington Post: 'It's an injustice ... You can't prosecute our soldiers for acts of war and threaten them with years of confinement when this programme, if it comes to the light of day, was clearly coming from higher levels. All those people who said "go use this stuff" just disappeared ... '
US military officers in Baghdad deny the existence of a baiting programme. The court barred most classified material from Hensley's court martial.
© 2007 The Guardian