By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier accused of shooting dead five fellow servicemen at a military counselling centre in Iraq has struck a plea deal with Army prosecutors that would spare him from facing the death penalty, his lawyer said on Friday.
Army Sergeant John Russell, under confinement at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, is accused of going on a shooting frenzy at Camp Liberty, adjacent to the Baghdad airport, in a 2009 attack his lawyers have insisted stemmed from combat stress.
"We have reached an agreement and both parties have entered into the agreement," his civilian attorney, James Culp, said. He added that Russell would plead guilty at a hearing on Monday to five counts of intentional murder, one count of attempted murder, and one of assault.
An Army spokesman declined to discuss the status of the case.
The prosecution, which has accused Russell of acting with premeditation, is likely to seek a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, Culp has previously said. He declined to say what punishment he would recommend.
Even if the plea bargain is accepted by the presiding judge in the case, Army Colonel David Conn, under the military justice system Russell would still face a court-martial - with opening and closing statements, testimony from witnesses and the presentation of evidence - to decide the degree of his guilt.
The choice then would be between a verdict of premeditated murder or the lesser offense of intentional murder that Russell has agreed to plead guilty to, and his prison term would hinge on that finding. But the death penalty would be off the table, as would a not-guilty verdict or insanity plea.
Conn is set to question Russell on Monday in a proceeding known as a "providence inquiry" to determine whether the circumstances of the shooting support a guilty plea and that Russell believes he is guilty.
Conn will then decide whether Russell will be tried before a judge alone or a jury. Either way, a trial is still slated for May 6.
If the judge rejects the deal, then Russell would face a lengthier, full-fledged trial in which the determination of his guilt or innocence would be at stake, as well as the question of a death penalty if he were convicted of premeditated murder.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Phil Berlowitz)