VILSECK, Germany – A U.S. soldier pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder and was sentenced to seven months in prison Thursday in the deaths of four Iraqis, saying he stood guard from a machine-gun turret while the bound men were shot.
The relatively lenient sentence for Spc. Belmor Ramos was part of a deal that will see him testify against others alleged to have been involved in the killings last year.
The four unidentified Iraqi men were bound, blindfolded, shot in the head and dumped in a Baghdad canal between 10 March and 16 April 2007 — killings prosecutors said were in retribution for casualties in Ramos' unit at the time.
Ramos, of Clearfield, Utah, told a judge at his court martial that he stood guard as the men were killed. In the stark Rose Barracks courtroom, the 23-year-old testified he didn't have to go along with the others, but that he wanted to.
"I wanted them dead. I had no legal justification or excuse to do this," Ramos said in a soft but steady voice.
Ramos testified he stood watch from the machine-gun turret of his Humvee when others carried out the killings. He said he heard the shots, but did not personally witness the deaths.
Ramos had faced a possible sentence of life in prison for conspiracy to commit murder.
Judge Lt. Col. Edward O'Brien said that, had it not been for the plea agreement, he would have sentenced Ramos to 40 years in prison. Ramos will also have his rank reduced to private and be dishonorably discharged from the army.
The native of Chile, who moved to Utah at age 10 and became a U.S. citizen in 2006, could also lose his citizenship because of the verdict, and face deportation.
"We are a country that believes in free will, but we must show personal courage to do the right thing," said prosecutor Capt. Derrick Grace.
"A message must be sent to those who might want to be the judge, jury, and as in this case, the executioner, all at once."
Ramos was with the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division when in Iraq. He and all other soldiers allegedly involved are now part of the Germany-based 172nd Infantry Brigade as part of the Army's reorganization.
Three others in the unit — Sgt. John E. Hatley, Sgt. 1st Class Joseph P. Mayo, and Sgt. Michael P. Leahy Jr. — were charged Tuesday with premeditated murder, conspiracy to commit premeditated murder and obstruction of justice.
They face a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence for them to be sent before a court-martial, but the Army wouldn't say Thursday if a date has been set.
Ramos said he understood from discussions in the Humvee that night that the prisoners were going to be killed. He testified that Hatley had asked if it was OK with people in the vehicle to do that, to which Ramos said he replied, "I'm cool with it."
Ramos' defense attorney, Capt. Patrick Bryan, who had asked for his client to be formally reprimanded and allowed to stay in the Army, had little to say about the sentence.
"If it sounds harsh, I don't know; it is what it is," he said, noting that the case would be automatically reviewed, a process akin to an appeal.
Ramos, along with Spc. Steven Ribordy, 25, waived his rights to the Article 32 hearing, the equivalent to a civilian preliminary hearing. A court-martial is scheduled for Oct. 2.
In an earlier statement, the Army said the allegations against all the men related to "the deaths of several detainees who were captured as part of combat operations last year."
That statement, released in January, said that "preliminary findings indicate the deceased detainees were not persons detained in a detention facility," indicating the men were killed shortly after being captured.
In hearings in late August, soldiers who were on the patrol said the four Iraqis who were killed, probably Sunnis, were taken into custody following a shootout with insurgents and taken to the unit's operating base near Baghdad. Later that night, members of the patrol took the four men out to a remote location and killed them, according to testimony.
Hearings were held in August to determine whether to proceed with criminal charges against two other soldiers — Staff Sgt. Jess Cunningham, and Sgt. Charles Quigley — but no date has yet been scheduled for a decision.
Hatley and Leahy were also charged Tuesday with one count each of premeditated murder and conspiracy to commit premeditated murder in a death near Baghdad in January 2007. Leahy was also charged with being an accessory after the fact in that incident, a statement this week from the military said.
The Army did not provide details on that death.