Wrenching testimony in penalty phase of sergeant who killed fellow servicemen

John Russell. Courtesy LA Times.

From Kim Murphy at the LA Times

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — Lt. Col. Michael Jones was the last psychiatrist to see Sgt. John Russell before the sergeant returned to the Iraq mental health clinic with an M-16 rifle, killing two doctors and three other fellow servicemen.

In the four years since, Russell’s lawyers have laid much of the blame on Jones, who they say mocked Russell’s threat to kill himself. But in dramatic courtroom testimony Monday, after a military judge determined Russell had acted with premeditation, Jones offered a fierce defense of the doctors and insisted the killings were not the result of untreated mental illness.

“I guess I should be grateful for being alive … since that day, the soul-searching has been relentless,” Jones said as the sentencing phase opened in Russell’s weeklong court martial on five counts of premeditated murder.

“I believe both professionally and in my heart that Sgt. Russell committed a deliberate and premeditated act. It was like hijacking an airplane. There was no indecision. He was so focused. He was judge, jury and executioner for his idea of justice,” Jones said. “We saw vengeance that day.”

Earlier Monday, Judge David L. Conn found that Russell, now 48, acted with premeditation in the 2009 shootings of all five victims, rejecting defense claims that Russell’s acts were the result of severe depression, brain damage and post-combat stress exacerbated by his treatment by Army mental health providers. The sentencing hearing began immediately afterward. Conn must impose a life sentence, but could decide to make Russell eligible for parole.

Jones also rejected Russell’s claims, contrasting the client he saw twice — angry, he said, that he couldn’t get out of the Army — with mental health workers and patients who were fighting genuine combat trauma to try to maintain battle readiness.

Jones recalled running into Pfc. Michael Yates Jr., 19, a patient who had successfully completed counseling and was about to return to his unit but who was killed by Russell.

Yates was shaving in the clinic bathroom two hours before the shooting, Jones said. “He said, ‘Yeah, I’m going home today, sir. I’m going home.’ To his unit,” Jones recalled. “I said, this is really gratifying. This is what we do. We help soldiers become mission capable. To go back to the fight. To fulfill their obligations.”

Russell sat quietly at the defense table Monday, showing no emotion.

Much of the day of wrenching, tearful testimony from co-workers and family members was devoted to the doctors who were Russell’s first two victims, psychiatrist Maj. Matthew Houseal, 54, of Amarillo, Texas, and clinical social worker Charles “Keith” Springle, 52, of Beaufort, N.C.

Both had good jobs but volunteered to go to the heart of the war in Baghdad because they believed they were needed there to help the increasing numbers of traumatized soldiers, family members said.

Houseal had a lifelong love of learning: He was a flight instructor and former naval aviator, a board-certified surgeon and a psychiatrist. He lived with his wife and seven children in a small house on the outskirts of Amarillo and drove a 15-year-old Ford Escort to work.

He would fly his 1947 Luscombe plane to remote towns in Texas to treat patients, sometimes taking his daughter with him and inviting her to reach her hand outside to see what a cloud felt like.

“As I look back, there’s very few people I think ever, anywhere, that God has given the talents and the gifts that he gave to my brother,” Stephen Houseal, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army, told the court. “He had no interest, his whole life, in things. Things just didn’t matter. What mattered was learning things and knowing things, and then helping people that needed help.”

Luzma Houseal said her husband got up at 4 a.m. to deliver papers at the age of 9, got a job as a janitor as a teenager and pulled his children through a high school biology textbook while they were still in grade school. He volunteered to work six months at a scientific station in Antarctica with 72 hours notice when the scheduled doctor couldn’t go.

“’Life is too short,’ that’s what he said. Life is too short,” his wife said.

Going to the Houseal house, family members said, one had to be ready for anything. There were often buckets of pond water nurturing tadpoles. The children might be on the roof. They raised llamas, and when one fell sick, they draped blankets on the floor and brought it into the living room.

“Convention meant nothing to Matt, and he raised his children that way. It was, ‘Are you busy, are you curious, are you doing things?’ The furniture was to jump on,” Stephen Houseal said.

Hardly anyone among their friends and even their extended family knew Houseal had volunteered with the Army reserve to go to Iraq, his brother said. “He didn’t even tell me, and I was arguably his closest sibling.”

When he learned of his brother’s death, he didn’t know how to tell his parents, he said, even though the men of his family had served in both world wars, in Korea and in Vietnam.

“To have them taken away, not by evil — it’s the oldest story around, good and evil,” he said. “The thing that seems most unfair is that evil gets to go first. All the time. And evil always extracts a price from good.”

Susan Springle showed the court photos from her family’s tours in Spain and the Aleutian Islands. Her husband had a lifelong love of music and could pick up almost any instrument and play it without instruction, she said. In a family in which no one before his generation had gone beyond high school, he got a doctorate in clinical psychology.

“He taught me by example how to problem-solve, but Keith put it into words for me,” she said. “When someone comes to you with a question or a problem or needs help … the answer should always be, ‘I’ll do my best to help you, and if I can’t, I’ll find someone who can.’”

Springle had completed 20 years in the Navy and could have retired, his family said, but chose to volunteer for Iraq. “He felt that his work wasn’t done. Because he felt there more people that needed to be helped,” said his sister-in-law, Marilyn Springle.

Perhaps the most emotional testimony came from Springle’s father, who spoke quietly but hoarsely about how he has tried to understand the killings. He has tried to understand why his son, who had never met Russell, was shot “by a man who was mad because he didn’t get what he wanted.”

“If he was a kid, you would have called it a temper tantrum,” Charles Springle Sr. said.

Springle began weeping as he described his son’s last phone call, the day before the shootings, on Mother’s Day. “Daddy, I feel like I’m helping some people,” he said his son told him before hanging up.

The old man struggled to regain his voice.

“Folks, I’ve been asked how can you feel this way, when you’re a Christian? You’re supposed to be forgiving,” he said. “Since this happened, I have not been able to repeat the Lord’s Prayer. Because every time I get to the part where it says forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, I can’t say it. I’m sorry. But I can’t say it.”