FORT BRAGG, N.C. – An Army sergeant on trial for an attack that killed two officers in Kuwait suffered from mental illness for years and could not have planned it, defense lawyers told a military jury during opening statements Monday.
Defense lawyer Maj. Dan Brookhart (search) acknowledged Sgt. Hasan Akbar (search) committed the March 2003 grenade and firearm attack, but said he was not capable of the premeditation required for his client to be eligible for the death penalty. He said his client's mental illness was triggered by his stepfather's sexual abuse of his sister.
A military prosecutor responded by telling the jury that evidence would show Akbar planned the attack, including his diaries and the disappearance of grenades from a truck Akbar had been assigned to guard.
Prosecutors have previously said Akbar confessed to the fatal assault and told investigators he was worried that United States forces would harm fellow Muslims in the Iraq war.
Akbar's court-martial marks the first time since the Vietnam War that a soldier has been prosecuted for allegedly murdering another soldier during wartime.
Akbar is charged with two counts of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted first-degree murder and could be sentenced to death if convicted of premeditated murder. The attack killed Army Capt. Christopher Seifert, 27, and Air Force Maj. Gregory Stone, 40, and injured 14 other soldiers.
Air Force Capt. Mark Wisher, who lived in the same tent as Stone, testified that he heard someone at the entrance to the tent yell that there was an attack. Seconds later, "I heard something hit the wooden floor of our tent and then bounce. I've seen movies, Hollywood movies, and grenades sounded like that."
Wisher said he was blown through the air by the blast and both he and Stone were left covered in blood. Wisher was wounded on the right side of his body and suffered a collapsed lung, lacerated liver and punctured diaphragm.
He described Stone yelling for help as blood spurted from a neck wound. Despite his wounds, Wisher cradled Stone's head and said Stone looked up at him as his breathing became labored.
Lt. Col. Ken Romaine, the first officer to be attacked, said he was shot as he left his tent to see what was happening. The camp, normally well lit, was in darkness, he said.
"As I turned, I was shot," he said. "All I saw was a flash. I'd been shot through the hand. The bullet went through both hands and deflected down my left thigh."
During opening statements, Capt. John Benson, one of the three prosecutors handling the case, had said Akbar turned off a generator, cutting off the lights in an area of officers' tents. He then threw grenades into two tents and shot one victim in the back, he said.
Akbar's court-martial is taking place under tight security. Visitors are scanned with metal detectors, trained dogs sniff equipment and a half-dozen armed military police officers are on patrol.
The 101st Airborne Division is based at Fort Campbell, Ky., but his trial was moved to Fort Bragg, home of the division's higher command, the 18th Airborne Corps.
The jury of 15 was selected last week. Defense lawyers leaned toward jurors who said they had experience with mental health issues. One officer said his sister had problems after brain surgery. Others said they had dealt with soldiers who were sent for mental health evaluations.