AMMAN, Jordan – Three gate guards at a Jordanian air base told a military court Monday that they held their fire when they heard an apparent gunshot from the direction of a nearby U.S. troop convoy because they couldn't identify the source of the sound.
Their testimony raised new questions about the possible motive of a Jordanian soldier who is on trial for murder in the November shooting deaths of three U.S. military trainers. The defendant, 1st Sgt. Marik al-Tuwayha, allegedly opened fire on the convoy as it waited to enter the base, killing the U.S. Army Green Berets.
The defendant has pleaded "not guilty." Throughout Monday's session, he stood quietly in a cage in the courtroom, just meters (yards) from the fathers of two of the slain Americans.
The judge has said the defendant is not suspected of ties to terrorist groups.
Jordan, a close U.S. military ally, initially said the Americans triggered the shooting by disobeying orders of Jordanian troops at the al-Jafr air base in the south of the kingdom. Jordan later withdrew this claim and King Abdullah II cleared the soldiers of any wrongdoing in a letter to the parents.
The victims were 27-year-old Staff Sgt. Matthew C. Lewellen of Kirksville, Missouri; 30-year-old Staff Sgt. Kevin J. McEnroe of Tucson, Arizona; and 27-year-old Staff Sgt. James F. Moriarty of Kerrville, Texas.
Three gate guards on Monday told the court that a four-car convoy carrying the U.S. military trainers pulled up at the entrance of the air base before noon on Nov. 4.
All four vehicles passed through the outer gate of the base. The lead vehicle then passed through the inner gate, leaving three more vehicles between the outer and inner gates.
At the time, the defendant was in a guardhouse next to the inner gate, witnesses said.
They say they heard what sounded like a shot from a pistol that seemed to be coming from the direction of the three vehicles. They said that under rules of engagement, they are allowed to return fire, but that they did not do so because they could not locate the exact source of the purported gunshot.
At this point, the defendant opened fire at the convoy, according to one witness. The witnesses said they then heard gunfire for several minutes.
Moriarty's father, James, who has repeatedly watched a security camera video of the shooting at an FBI office in the U.S., said the defendant fired from inside the guardhouse at the closest vehicle, killing McEnroe and Lewellen.
Moriarty, a 70-year-old trial lawyer, said his son and another U.S. soldier then jumped out of their vehicles and took cover behind large cement blocks and returned fire. He said they called out to the defendant in English and Arabic that they were friendly forces, but that he did not stop shooting.
Moriarty said after Monday's hearing that he's seen two very different sides of al-Tuwayha — the "diminutive hunched-over defendant caged like a rat in a courtroom" and the "unbelievably aggressive (shooter) with his M-16 who murdered my son, the one in the video."
The shooter's motive remains a mystery, said Moriarty. He said no evidence has been presented that a pistol was fired from the area of the U.S. convoy.
Moriarty said that any claims that the defendant opened fire in the mistaken belief the base was under attack would not explain why he kept shooting. "It's hard to give him credit for anything besides malice for continuing to fire on the survivor and my son," Moriarty told The Associated Press.
Moriarty has repeatedly called for the security camera video to be made public. He said he expects the judge to enter the video into the trial record, but that it's not clear if it will be made public by the court.
Witness testimony began Sunday and will continue through Wednesday.
Moriarty and McEnroe's father, Brian, will return to the U.S. on Thursday.