FORT HOOD, Texas – An Army soldier has been cleared of killing an unarmed Iraqi he said he shot to save a fellow soldier.
Staff Sgt. Shane Werst (search), 32, was acquitted Thursday by a jury of four soldiers and two officers. He had faced a maximum of life in prison without parole for the premeditated murder charge.
Defense attorney David Sheldon said the jurors, who deliberated less than three hours, apparently considered evidence that Werst had to make a split-second decision during a nighttime raid in a dangerous environment.
"Soldiers have to be able to know that they're not being second-guessed in the battlefield and in close-quarters combat," Sheldon said.
Before the jury announced the verdict, the judge found Werst innocent of obstruction of justice, so the jury's verdict on that charge was not revealed. Col. Theodore Dixon said he decided to rule on that charge.
Werst's family shrieked, cried and hugged after the verdict was read.
Prosecutors had said the last year's killing of Naser Ismail, a suspected insurgent, was in retaliation for an Army captain's death earlier that day.
Werst, of El Toro, Calif., testified Thursday that he doesn't regret gunning down Ismail because the Iraqi lunged toward another soldier's gun.
"I would still to this day fire on that man, sir," he said.
Werst said he and a fellow soldier went into a house with Ismail because he thought the Iraqi would turn over more weapons. Earlier, Werst found and confiscated a pistol in Ismail's house.
After shooting Ismail, Werst said he quickly fired the pistol into a couch and told the other soldier, Pfc. Nathan Stewart, to put the man's fingerprints on it.
Werst said he was scared because he had never shot anyone and that Stewart also was "freaking out." He admitted he should not have tried to make the shooting look like self-defense.
"It was wrong," Werst said. "I have no idea why I did that."
Prosecutor Capt. Evan Seamone said in closing arguments that Werst's story doesn't make sense.
"If this is a legitimate kill, if this follows the rules of engagement ... why in the world would he have to create a lie?" Seamone said in closing arguments.
Seamone also reminded jurors of the testimony of Stewart, who said Werst became angry because he thought Ismail lied about his identity. Werst then said, "Come on, Stewart — we're going to kill this (expletive)," Stewart testified.
Werst was a combat engineer in the 3rd Brigade Combat Team at Fort Carson, Colo., part of the Fort Hood-based 4th Infantry Division (search).