The Boston Globe reports:
A military panel acquitted US Army Specialist Jorge G. Sandoval of two counts of murder yesterday, apparently swayed by testimony from fellow Army snipers that two Iraqi men were killed on orders from a higher-ranking soldier.
Sandoval was convicted of a less serious charge of planting detonation wire on one of the bodies to make it look like the victim was an insurgent. As a result, he still could face five years in prison. The seven-member jury deliberated less than two hours in clearing him of all but one charge.
Sandoval, 22, of Laredo, Texas, had faced five charges in the deaths of the two unidentified Iraqi men.
In dramatic testimony during the two-day court-martial, Sandoval's colleagues testified they were following orders when they shot the men during two separate events, on April 27 and May 11. The shootings took place near Iskandariyah, a volatile Sunni-dominated area 30 miles south of Baghdad.
Specialist Alexander Flores, of Hayward, Calif., who was in the same squad as Sandoval on the day of the April killing, testified their platoon leader said the suspect was "our guy" and ordered them to move in, which they interpreted as "take the target out."
The suspect, who wore dark clothing and used a sickle to cut grass in a field, matched the general description Iraqi soldiers had given the Americans of one of two insurgents they had faced earlier in the day, according to testimony.
After the killing, Flores said Staff Sergeant Michael Hensley told him to place the detonation wire on the body and in the man's pocket, which he said he did.
But prosecutors cited an interview with Sandoval immediately after his arrest in which he said he planted the wire.
Outside court, Flores stood by his testimony.
"He was just doing his job, as he was told. It's not his fault," said Flores, who, along with the rest of Sandoval's sniper platoon, greeted him with hugs and well wishes.
In the May shooting, Sergeant Evan Vela said Hensley told him to shoot a man who had stumbled upon their snipers' hideout, although he was not armed and had his hands in the air when he approached the soldiers.
"He [Hensley] asked me if I was ready. I had the pistol out. I heard the word shoot. I don't remember pulling the trigger. It took me a second to realize that the shot came from the pistol in my hand," Vela testified, crying.
Sandoval, who was charged with murder because prosecutors said he did nothing to stop the killing, also was acquitted yesterday of charges he planted the weapon on the second man's body.
Vela of Rigby, Idaho, and Hensley of Candler, N.C., are both charged in the case and will be tried separately.
All three soldiers are part of the 25th Infantry Division at Fort Richardson, Alaska.