Jury selection began Monday in the trial of a former soldier being tried as a civilian on charges of raping a teenage girl and killing her and her family in Iraq.
Steven Dale Green, 22, will be the first former Army soldier to be charged as a civilian under a law that allows prosecution for alleged crimes committed overseas. An ex-Marine was tried and acquitted under the law last year for a separate incident in Iraq.
Green was accused along with four fellow soldiers of raping a 14-year-old girl and killing her and her family in Mahmoudiya, Iraq. He faces 17 charges, including murder and sexual assault
Jury selection began Monday, and opening arguments were scheduled to begin April 27. Green, with a military-style crew cut, appeared in court Monday, but left before the first prospective jurors entered the room.
Green will face jurors in a federal court in Paducah, more than 6,700 miles (10,800 kilometers) away from Iraq.
Congress passed the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act in 2000 to allow U.S. authorities to prosecute former military personnel for crimes committed overseas. The law specifically cites a "jurisdictional gap" that leaves perpetrators unpunished for crimes by Americans occurring in countries that won't prosecute them or that the U.S. is unable to investigate or prosecute. It also covers civilians, their spouses and military contractors.
Green and four other soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, were investigated after an Iraqi girl, Abeer Qassim al-Janabi, was raped and her body set afire. Her family was also killed on March 12, 2006.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Marisa Ford, who is prosecuting the case, said at least three of those soldiers as well as members of the slain girl's surviving family may be called as witnesses in the case.
By the time the Army pressed charges in June 2006, Green had been honorably discharged with a personality disorder and returned to the United States. Because Green had been discharged — and the military refused to allow him to re-enlist — federal prosecutors filed an indictment against Green as a civilian.
The other four soldiers were charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and each faced a military trial, known as a court martial. Three pleaded guilty and a jury convicted one. They received sentences ranging from five years to 110 years based on their acknowledged roles in the attack.
Darren Wolff, a former military attorney who represents Green, said his client is being treated differently from his alleged coconspirators, all of whom faced military juries and none of whom faced the death penalty.
"There's so much more that goes into understanding the situation," Wolff said. "How can they accurately get the impression of a battlefield in Paducah?"
A lawyer who represented a former Marine tried under the same law last year said jurors seemed to be uneasy with second-guessing battlefield decisions.
The civilian jury in California acquitted former Marine Jose Luise Nazario Jr. of voluntary manslaughter and other charges. Prosecutors said he was part of a group of Marines who killed an unarmed detainee in Fallujah, Iraq.
"This type of prosecution isn't what the law was intended to do," said one of Nazario's attorneys, Joe Preis.
But one proponent of the law disagrees and said the law is functioning as it should in Green's case.
"Congress seems to have envisioned someone just like him," said Scott Silliman, Executive Director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
As attorneys questioned jurors in Paducah, some Mahmoudiya residents were reading the London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily newspaper which carried news of the case.
"A US soldier faces death penalty," said one headline.
"We don't want only this American soldier to be hanged," said Shihab Ahmed, a relative of the raped girl. "We want more than him to be executed. And any American soldier who abuses any Iraqi citizen should be hanged and executed."
Jabir al-Hamdani, the head of the local council, also called for the death penalty. "This soldier has abused Iraqis as a whole, abused humanity and distorted the image of the U.S.," he said.