Updated: November 29, 2010 at 12:00 am
Pfc. David Lawrence nodded off several times Monday during a hearing that will determine if the Army puts him on trial for the premeditated murder of an Afghan prisoner.
His attorney says the 20-year-old Fort Carson GI is strung out on drugs to battle schizophrenia and isn’t mentally fit to stand trial.
Army prosecutors, though, say he was cold and calculated on Oct. 17 when he fired a single rifle shot into the head of a Taliban leader who was shackled in a cell at an American outpost north of Kandahar.
“He said, ‘I killed him,’” his platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Dominic Buscemi, testified about the moments after the prisoner was shot. “I said, ‘Killed who?’ and he said, ‘The guy in the cell.’”
During the hearing, an Article 32 in military parlance, Capt. David Thompson is tasked with recommending to superiors whether there’s sufficient evidence for Lawrence to stand trial.
Lawrence, an infantryman who came to Fort Carson in January, was serving in Afghanistan with the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division. He was on guard duty at the time of the killing.
He was a solid high school athlete if a poor student. The toughness of the Army captured his imagination, and he dropped out of school at age 17 to join the Indiana National Guard.
He changed after he got to Afghanistan in July, said his father, Brett Lawrence. In phone calls home, the soldier complained of hearing voices in his head while on missions — alarming for a man with a family history of schizophrenia.
With his father’s encouragement, Pfc. Lawrence sought help and was given antidepressant drugs prescribed by military doctors in Kandahar, in south central Afghanistan, according to testimony and family accounts. To his father’s surprise, David Lawrence went back to war after a few days of treatment.
“You don’t put somebody on narcotics and stick them back out in the field,” the elder Lawrence said.
The family hopes mental health evaluations will show him to be incapable of premeditated murder, which carries a maximum penalty of death.
The man Lawrence is accused of killing was captured on the day of his death and was awaiting interrogation.
The Afghan’s exact name isn’t known to the Army. He was held under the pseudonym Mullah Mohebullah.
Testimony Monday showed that Lawrence, an Indiana native, was acting strangely on the day of the shooting.
Buscemi said Lawrence warned buddies that he was about to do something rash, but leaders didn’t know what.
“He said I’m going to do something in the next 20 minutes that you are too pussy to do,” Buscemi testified.
Lawrence also asked Bucemi what would happen if someone shot the prisoner, the sergeant testified.
A military investigator testified that Lawrence gave several accounts of what happened in the cell.
First, Special Agent Shannon Richey testified, Lawrence said it was an accident — the prisoner was killed by a ricocheting bullet when he mistakenly pulled the trigger.
Then, Richey said, Lawrence said he was overcome by emotions when he saw the bearded captive.
“He said ‘I could just see all the people I knew getting blown up,’” said Richey, who testified by telephone from Afghanistan.
The prisoner was killed by a single bullet that entered his face and exited his neck.
Lawrence, a pink-cheeked man who looks younger than his age and was nicknamed “Smiley” in the unit for his constant grin, was flown to Kandahar in handcuffs for his interrogation.
From there, commanders sent him for mental health treatment in Germany and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
An Army-ordered psychiatric evaluation is under way to determine whether he understands the charges and is capable of participating in his own defense.
In a motion to delay the hearing, Lawrence’s attorney, James Culp of Austin, Texas, said it’s wrong for the Army to hold hearings in the case when its unclear whether the soldier understands what’s going on.
“I think its breathtakingly irresponsible,” Culp said after the hearing.
The Army denied Culp’s request, saying regulations do not require the court to put the case on hold until the psychiatric results are obtained.
Lawrence hardly spoke during Monday’s proceedings, except to complain about the weather during a break.
“It’s probably warmer in Afghanistan,” he said in a slurred voice.
The hearing continues today with testimony expected from soldiers in Afghanistan who served with Lawrence.
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