Just over three years and two months ago, Steven Green raped 14-year-old Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi and murdered her, her parents and her six-year-old sister in the family’s isolated farm house 20 miles south of Baghdad. On Thursday afternoon, after deliberating on a death sentence for 10 hours over two days, a jury of nine women and three men in Paducah, Kentucky’s U.S. District Court declared they could not come to a unanimous decision. As a result, Green will receive an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole.
The sentence marks the final legal chapter stemming from one of the most notorious crimes conducted by U.S. servicemen during the Iraq War. The case is a flashpoint in Iraq, where many locals quoted in news reports have said that death would be the only acceptable sentence. To represent her country’s point, the Iraqi Minister of Human Rights attended the first day of the trial. Darren Wolff, a Louisville lawyer in private practice who helped defend Steven Green said international opinions should not be relevant to the pursuit of justice. In a written statement after the sentence became known, Wolff said, “We are pleased the jury did not bow to those politically motivated pressures.”
On March 12, 2006, Private First Class Green and three fellow soldiers got drunk on Iraqi whiskey at a lightly-defended checkpoint in one of the country’s most dangerous regions. Harboring a hatred of the locals stemming from heavy losses their platoon had sustained, Green and his co-conspirators hit upon a premeditated plan as savage as it was outrageous. Donning long black underwear disguises they called “ninja suits,” they slipped away unnoticed from their post and ventured to a house several hundred meters away where they jumped the family living there. Three of the four soldiers, including Green, raped Abeer, and Green shot all four victims at point-blank range. They returned to their checkpoint undetected and, for months afterwards, the U.S. Army and most of the locals alike attributed the massacre to the frequent Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence that engulfed the region at that time.
After a lower-enlisted Army whistleblower who had learned indirectly about U.S. involvement in the crime came forward, Green’s three co-conspirators were convicted in military courts, all receiving sentences of 90 years or longer. But because Green had already been discharged for reasons unrelated to the crime, he was tried in civilian court. It was the first time a former soldier has faced trial and the possible death penalty in such a jurisdiction for his actions in a warzone. On May 7th, he was found guilty of 16 counts of murder, rape and related charges.
For a week and a half, lawyers presented evidence, testimony and argument to the same jury that convicted Green about whether his crimes warranted death or life in prison without parole. In closing arguments, federal prosecutor Brian Skaret focused on the barbarity of the crime. Displaying gory crime scene photos of the slaughtered family, Skaret emphasized that Green alone bore responsibility for shooting the two adults and two children, and said that Green must pay for that choice with his own life. The defense repeatedly asserted that the Army must shoulder some blame because it did not heed warning signs about his instability. To those, Skaret declared: “They have tried to paint Mr. Green as a victim, but we know who the real victims are. This is not about leadership, this is not about the stress of warfare. This is about heinous crimes inflicted upon innocent civilians.”
“There is no excuse for what Steven Green did,” defense attorney Scott Wendelsdorf conceded during his closing, “but there is an explanation” which, he argued, made Green living the rest of his life in jail without possibility of parole the more just punishment. Summarizing the horrific conditions Green’s unit lived and fought under, the breakdowns in leadership it experienced, and the fact that Green’s superiors knew he was obsessed with killing Iraqi civilians yet kept him on the front lines, Wendelsdorf said, “The United States of America failed Steven Green. And that would not amount to a hill of beans if the United States weren’t trying to put him to death now.” He ended his remarks thundering, “America does not kill its broken warriors! Spare this boy. For God’s sake, spare him.” At least one juror heeded that exhortation.
Jim Frederick, a former editor at TIME, is writing a book about Green’s unit, Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Disintegration in the Triangle of Death and the American Ordeal in Iraq, which is to be published in spring 2010 by Harmony Books.