A squad leader never ordered his soldiers to shoot three Iraqi detainees, but he did help cover up the slayings, a defense attorney said in opening statements of the soldier's murder trial Tuesday.

"He saw what they did," attorney Anita Gorecki told the military court. "He realized they killed the detainees, and in that moment, yes, he decided to help his squad members."

Staff Sgt. Ray Girouard is the last and most senior soldier from the 101st Airborne Division to face trial for the killings during a May 9 raid on a suspected insurgent camp outside of Samarra, Iraq.

Military prosecutors say Girouard, 24, had told his soldiers to cut the detainees free and then kill them as they tried to run.

Two other soldiers charged with murder — Spc. William B. Hunsaker and Pfc. Corey Clagett — pleaded guilty, cooperated with prosecutors and were sentenced to 18 years in military prison. Both men said during their court hearings that Girouard ordered the killings.

They originally said they were attacked by the detainees and shot in self defense.

"This is a case about fact versus fiction," military prosecutor Capt. Joseph Mackey said. "Hunsaker and Clagett will tell you about the fiction they devised to cover up the killings. The facts will reveal Staff Sgt. Girouard orchestrated, planned and had his subordinates carry out the killing of three Iraqi detainees."

Hunsaker had testified that Girouard cut him on the face and arm to make it appear there had been a struggle.

Another soldier, Spc. Juston R. Graber, testified that he shot one of the dying detainees after they had been wounded, but said he didn't witness the initial shooting. Graber pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and was sentenced to nine months in a military jail.

The soldiers had previously told investigators they were given rules of engagement by 3rd Brigade commander Col. Michael Steele to kill all military-age men. Steele has denied this, but invoked his right not to testify.

A judge ruled last week that Steele won't be forced testify, but defense attorneys could cross-examine the witnesses about their understanding of Steele's order.

Gene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said it has become common in military trials for soldiers to testify they were just following orders or rules of engagement. But it's not always an effective argument.

"If an order is illegal or commonly understood to be illegal, then it's not a defense that you acted in compliance of that order," Fidell said. "The fact that such an order was given doesn't necessarily get anyone off the hook."

Girouard's family and friends in Sweetwater, Tenn., have rallied around him, saying the allegations don't make sense for a highly trained Army Ranger who had just begun a promising military career.

"He tried to teach all of his men everything he knew about being a Ranger, just to prepare them for what they were going to go into," his grandfather, Ron Bentley, told The Associated Press.