JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — The two unarmed Iraqi brothers posed no threat as they herded cattle in a palm grove where a US Army reconnaissance team was hidden one day seven years ago. But then-Staff Sergeant Michael Barbera leveled his rifle and killed them anyway — from nearly 200 yards away, a former fellow soldier said Wednesday as a preliminary hearing opened in the case.
‘‘Oh my God — why?’’ former Specialist John Lotempio testified when a prosecutor asked him to describe his reaction to the killings. ‘‘They didn’t see us.’’
Barbera, 31 and now a sergeant first-class, faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted of premeditated murder in a case that raised concerns about a possible coverup. Two years after the killings, Army criminal investigators looked into the case, but commanders decided to give Barbera a letter of reprimand instead of a court martial.
It was only after a Pittsburgh newspaper, The Tribune-Review, published an investigation about the matter in 2012 that the Army took another look. The story described how some of Barbera’s fellow soldiers remained troubled that he was never prosecuted, and it prompted calls from Congress for the Army to review the matter.
As the preliminary hearing began Wednesday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Barbera’s attorney, David Coombs, called the allegations baseless and highlighted the lingering questions about why it has taken so long to bring the case to court. An investigating officer, Lieutenant Colonel Charles N. Floyd, is considering whether Barbera should face a court martial.
Coombs alleged that the newspaper’s ‘‘hit piece,’’ which won an investigative reporting award, and congressional pressure had improperly influenced the Army’s decision to file charges against Barbera last fall.
Barbera’s fellow soldiers didn’t begin to come forward to report concerns about the shooting until 2009, and a criminal investigation was conducted then.
Two years after the killings, Army investigators looked at the case, but commanders decided to give the accused soldier a letter of reprimand.
The matter was ‘‘somehow put to bed by administrative action,’’ Captain Ben Hillner, an Army prosecutor, said in his opening statement. He did not elaborate on that decision by commanders.
Lotempio, who witnessed the shootings, said he didn’t report them at the time because ‘‘I don’t think I knew the proper way to go about it. I didn’t want to think about it.’’ He has suffered from nightmares about the killings ever since, he said.
He said ‘‘absolutely not’’ when asked if the boys posed a threat: ‘‘They looked to be about 10 or 11.’’
After Barbera killed the first boy with a single shot to the head, the second waved to them with one hand and yelled, ‘‘Hello, mister! Hello!’’ Lotempio said. Barbera fired a second shot that killed him.