Staff Sgt. Shane Werst's (search) future hinges on a single question: How did Naser Ismail die?
Werst, a combat engineer from El Toro, Calif., is accused of shooting Ismail after the Iraqi man was taken into custody during a series of house raids. Werst, 32, faces up to life in prison if convicted of murder and obstruction of justice.
His military trial was to start Monday.
Werst was charged in November after a soldier in his squad told Army investigators about the killing. That soldier also told authorities that Werst planted a handgun on the dead man to make the shooting look like self-defense.
Ismail was killed the day after a U.S. officer in Werst's unit died in a mortar attack. An Army investigator testified that emotions in Werst's squad were running high after the officer's death, and those feelings may have carried over into the raids.
Before the trial starts, the judge was to decide whether to allow testimony about one of Werst's superiors allegedly giving an illegal order for troops to hunt down a list of suspected insurgents and kill them. Prosecutors have said part of their case involves that issue.
But Werst's attorneys said Capt. Matthew Cunningham would testify that he never gave those orders, showing there was no premeditation when Ismail was killed in January 2004.
During a pretrial hearing in Werst's case last week, the judge, Col. Theodore Dixon, denied a defense request for immunity for Cunningham, expected to be charged with offenses related to ordering soldiers to kill Iraqis during raids after a mortar attack in Balad killed Army Capt. Eric Paliwoda.
The judge questioned the relevance of evidence about alleged orders and asked defense attorneys and prosecutors to submit paperwork on the issue. Dixon said he would rule before the trial whether the issue was admissible.
Also Monday, an Article 32 hearing — the military counterpart of a grand jury hearing — was scheduled for Cpl. Dustin Berg, 22, of Ferdinand, Ind. He is facing court martial in the fatal shooting of an Iraqi police officer.
Berg, who had received a Purple Heart (search) after being wounded in the November 2003 shooting, is charged with murder. His lawyer said at a hearing in February that he shot the officer in self-defense.
The hearing at Fort Knox in Kentucky was to address a charge of lying to investigators, which his attorneys did not contest in February. But the defense team reconsidered its waiver of the hearing when a military judge offered the chance recently, Fort Knox spokeswoman Connie Shaffery said.
The outcome will determine whether the false swearing and another lesser charge will be considered with the murder charge at Berg's court martial, which has been delayed until at least July 25, the Army said.