FORT CARSON, Colo. – A U.S. soldier with mental health problems was sentenced Wednesday to 12 ½ years in military prison after pleading guilty to premeditated murder for killing a suspected Taliban prisoner in his jail cell.
Pfc. David Lawrence told the judge he shot the prisoner — described by Army officials as a suspected Taliban commander — because he believed he had a hand in killing a chaplain whom Lawrence loved and admired.
"He killed my chaplain, so I killed him, sir," Lawrence told the judge.
Lawrence was accused of fatally shooting the prisoner, identified only as Mohebullah, in a jail cell at a U.S. outpost in Afghanistan on Oct. 17.
The chaplain, Capt. Dale Goetz, had been killed by an improvised bomb on Aug. 30, and a few days later Lawrence sought help at a combat stress center in Afghanistan. He was prescribed antidepressants and returned to his unit, where he was assigned guard duty.
Lawrence reached an agreement with Army commanders to plead guilty to premeditated murder in exchange for the 12 ½-year sentence. He was also demoted to private and will be dishonorably discharged.
He could have faced up to life in prison or execution, but his lawyer, James Culp, said the Army decided in late January against pursuing the death penalty.
Army doctors have given conflicting assessments of Lawrence's mental problems. One evaluation found he had schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder at the time of the shooting. A second evaluation by a different doctor found no severe mental illness or defect and described Lawrence as a "malingerer."
Culp said it wasn't clear if the second evaluation found no mental illness at all.
Lawrence's parents, Brett and Wendy Lawrence of Lawrenceburg, Ind., said their son told them before the shooting he was hearing voices. They said his family has a history of schizophrenia.
Lawrence, wearing a dress blue uniform, calmly described the killing to the judge, Col. Mark Bridges.
"I unlocked the door, walked in, shot the detainee, walked out and locked the door, sir," Lawrence said.
"I was just angry, so I popped him," he told the judge later.
Lawrence read a statement to the judge apologizing for his actions.
"In taking revenge by killing the Taliban commander, I disappointed God, I harmed my country's relationship with Afghanistan and I have deeply hurt my family," he said. "I am not proud of my actions, and I do not believe I did the right thing."
Lawrence's parents said afterward their son had become close to Goetz. "In his mind, he thought he was standing up for the chaplain," Brett Lawrence said.
One of the prosecutors, Maj. George Brauchler, told reporters he doubted the killing had anything to do with Goetz.
Lawrence wanted to be assigned to a front-line unit but was repeatedly turned down, Brauchler said. When he was assigned to guard the suspected Taliban leader, "I think he saw this was his chance," Brauchler said.
Brauchler said he thought the relatively short sentence was just despite his doubts about Lawrence's motives. He cited the conflicting mental evaluations, the fact that Lawrence was in a war zone at the time and Lawrence's admission in court.
"Here's a guy that stands up and owns up to his actions. That has value," Brauchler said.
Asked what message he hopes the case sends, he replied, "I hope the message we send is that we police our own."
When the hearing ended, Lawrence leaned over a railing in the back of the courtroom, hugged his parents and said, "Love you."
After soldiers handcuffed him and shackled his ankles, he stood against the courtroom wall while his father took his picture.
"He wanted to show his kids, if he has any, that 'I did the wrong thing,'" his father said later. "I didn't want to take the picture, but he insisted."