Military Hearing of Accused Killer of Psychiatrist and Others in Iraq

August 15, 2011

In 2009, Maj Matthew P. Houseal, a psychiatrist, was in Iraq attempting to help suicidal soldiers when a fellow soldier killed him, a clinical social worker and 3 others at a combat stress center near Bagdad. Paradoxically, Houseal’s accused killer, US Army Sgt John Russell, had earlier threatened to take his own life, according to witnesses’ testimony during a recent investigative Article 32 hearing.

In 2009, Maj Matthew P. Houseal, a psychiatrist, was in Iraq attempting to help suicidal soldiers when a fellow soldier killed him, a clinical social worker and 3 others at a combat stress center near Bagdad. Paradoxically, Houseal’s accused killer, US Army Sgt John Russell, had earlier threatened to take his own life, according to witnesses’ testimony during a recent investigative Article 32 hearing.

Russell is charged with 5 counts of premeditated murder, 2 counts of premeditated attempted murder, and 1 count of assault related to the May 11, 2009 shootings at Camp Liberty, Iraq. It was the deadliest act of soldier-on-soldier violence in the Iraq War. 

Killed in the shooting were Houseal of Texas, 3 other Army service members-- Pfc Michael Yates Jr. of Maryland, Spec Jacob D. Barton of Missouri, and Sgt Christian Bueno-Galdos of New Jersey--and a clinical social worker, Navy Cmdr Charles “Keith” Springle, PhD, of North Carolina.

(See Psychiatric Times’ 2009 story on the shooting.)

The recent United States Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 32 hearing on Russell’s actions, which was conducted at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, is comparable to a civilian preliminary hearing or a grand jury, said Rebecca Steed, a media relations representative at Fort Leavenworth

The hearing began Monday, Aug. 8, and concluded Aug. 11, as far as witness testimony and submitting evidence is concerned, Steed told Psychiatric Times. Russell did not testify, she added. 

Russell is being represented by 3 Army lawyers-- Maj Gregory N. Malson, Maj Lance A. Daniels, and Capt Larris Hutton-- and by a civilian attorney, James Culp. Capt Daniel L. Mazzone and Capt Patrick J. Scudieri are representing the government, which wants to pursue Russell’s prosecution as a capital (death penalty) case.

According to an Associated Press article, Russell’s attorneys used testimony to suggest that he was under stress from his 3 deployments to Iraq and angry over what he believed was inadequate mental health treatment.

In 2009, Russell reportedly told a psychiatrist, Lt Col Michael Jones, that the psychiatrist could either help him get better or he would take his own life.  When Jones did not reply, Russell stormed out. There was a confrontation outside the clinic.

At the hearing, Jones testified that he tried to get Russell to return to the clinic. He also denied that he was yelling at the soldier, testimony that was disputed by other hearing witnesses. During closing arguments at the hearing, according to press reports, Capt. Hutton described his client’s (Russell) mind as cracking, “and it cracked and cracked again.” 

Psychiatric evaluations of Russell conducted after the shootings indicated that he suffered from depression and PTSD. 

An August 2009 memo submitted in evidence, indicated that a 3-member evaluation panel from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, had found Russell to be suffering from severe depression “with psychotic features” and chronic PTSD, AP reported. The memo also said Russell was “unable to cooperate intelligently” in his own evaluation. A March 2011 evaluation concluded that Russell was suffering from those conditions at the time of the shooting, but his major depression with psychotic features was “in partial remission.”

The AP story added that Russell underwent treatment at a federal prison medical center in Butler, NC, beginning in August of 2009, and the warden didn’t consider him “restored to competency” until July of last year. 

Now that the 4-day Article 32 hearing has concluded, the presiding officer, Col James Pohl, will submit a written report of the findings and recommend whether to convene a general court-martial, modify the charges, or dismiss the case. The Article 32 hearing officer's report serves as a nonbinding recommendation to the officer that ordered the investigation. In a general court-martial, maximum punishment may include death (for certain offenses) or confinement.

Currently, Russell is at the Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility, a military prison, at Fort Leavenworth, where he is housed with the general pre-trial population.

Steed said she couldn’t comment on whether he is receiving psychiatric treatment there, as that would violate HIPAA and the Privacy Act. She did acknowledge that the facility is equipped with a team of mental health professionals, including a psychiatrist, psychologist, social workers, and behavioral science noncommissioned officers with experience in addressing the needs of military personnel in pre- and post-trial confinement.

Russell’s case has resulted in investigations about the mental health effects of repeated deployments to war zones on soldiers, the adequacy of psychiatric treatment for them, and how such tragedies can be prevented.