JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. (AP) — The two unarmed Iraqi brothers posed no threat as they herded cattle in a grove where a US Army reconnaissance team was hidden one day seven years ago. But then-Staff Sgt. Michael Barbera took a knee, leveled his rifle and killed them anyway, a prosecutor said Wednesday as a preliminary hearing opened in the soldier’s case.
The first boy was shot in the back, the prosecutor, Capt. Ben Hillner, told an investigating officer considering whether Barbera should face a court martial in the March 2007 slayings. The second boy was shot in the chest as he raised his hands in the air, he said.
Barbera, 31 and now a sergeant first-class based at Alaska’s Joint Base Elmendorff-Richardson, faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted of premeditated murder in a case that raised concerns about a possible cover-up. 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, south of Seattle, 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.
He 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. The matter was ‘‘somehow put to bed by administrative action,’’ Hillner said in his opening statement.
Hillner did not elaborate on that decision by commanders at Fort Bragg, N.C., where Barbera was then based.
Coombs, who represented Chelsea Manning, the Army private convicted of leaking a massive trove of information to Wikileaks, argued in his opening statement that even though the soldiers’ rules of engagement required them to report violations, it was two years before any raised concerns.
Further, he said, the reporter who wrote the stories, a former Marine named Carl Prine, was only too ready to believe what Barbera’s former comrades told him.
Prine and his wife are on the witness list. Quickly after Prine contacted Barbera via Facebook in 2011, Barbera called and told Prine’s wife something to the effect of: ‘‘For your own personal safety, you need to tell your husband to back off the story,’’ Hillner said Wednesday.
That’s the basis of another charge against Barbera, conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline. He’s also accused of trying to get a fellow soldier in 2009 to tell investigators that the dead boys might have been wearing suicide vests.
The shootings came in the village of As Sadah, in Diyala Province. Barbera was the leader of an eight-man reconnaissance team that had planned to remain secreted in the grove for two to three days monitoring possible enemy activity.
After the brothers were killed, Barbera’s group also killed their cousin, who approached the scene along a footpath. No charges were filed in that killing. The first witness to testify Wednesday, former Army medic Andrew Harriman, fired the shot that killed the cousin and said it appeared the man had been reaching for a weapon.
Harriman testified that he didn’t see where Barbera was shooting when he fired five or six shots that day, and that he only learned after the fact from another soldier, Private 1st Class Dary Fink, that Barbera had killed two unarmed boys.
Harriman testified that because he didn’t see whom Barbera was shooting at, or even the bodies, he didn’t report the issue. But he said he believed he urged Fink to do so.
Nevertheless, Harriman also testified that he believed his immediate commanders would have swept the matter under the rug even if he had reported it right away.
‘‘I believe they would have, yes, covered it up. They had all kinds of shady dealings,’’ he said.
The victims were identified as Ahmad Khalid al-Timmimi, 15; his brother Abbas, 14; and their cousin Muhamed Khaleel Kareem al-Galyani.
Follow Johnson at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle