A soldier who allegedly murdered two deaf, mute and unarmed Iraqi brothers seven years ago is scheduled to be in court Wednesday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord for a pretrial hearing that could lead to his court-martial and a possible life sentence in a military prison.
Sgt. 1st Class Michel Barbera is facing charges that he murdered the teenagers and lied to his command in the 82nd Airborne Division about the incident. Murder carries a mandatory minimum life sentence under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
He is stationed at Fort Richardson, Alaska. His court-martial proceedings are taking place at Lewis-McChord because the base has a courtroom than can handle high-profile cases.
Barbera's lead defense attorney is David Coombs, who represented Wikileaks leaker Pfc. Chelsea Manning.
The Army prosecution is led by Lt. Col. Robert Stelle. Stelle serves at Lewis-McChord. He has helped convict Kandahar massacre culprit Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, "kill team" ringleader Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, and Sgt. John Russell, who killed five U.S. military service members at a Baghdad mental health clinic in 2009. All three men are serving life sentences.
Barbera allegedly shot the boys while his sniper kill team observed a palm grove in As Sadah of Iraq’s Diyala Province in March 2007.
His teammates did not consider the boys a threat, several of them told The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review for a December 2012 investigation into the killings.
They also did not believe the boys named Ahmad Khalid and Abbas al-Timmimi had compromised their sniper position.
Just after the shooting, soldiers killed the boys’ cousin because they thought he was carrying a weapon as troops fled the palm grove.
Soldiers from the unit spoke to the press about the shootings after the Army in 2011 declined to press criminal charges against Barbera.
“I feel bad the boys were killed, and the way they were,” former soldier Dary Finck told the newspaper in 2012. “Because that’s not the way we operated on a standard, day-by-day basis. And it doesn’t reflect what kind of soldier I am. And I’ll be associated with that unit and that reputation for life.”
The Army filed new charges against Barbera in November – 12 months after the newspaper report.
Several of Barbera’s fellow soldiers in the airborne division’s 5th Squadron, 73rd Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment believed the killings led to reprisal attacks against their unit.
Barbera is scheduled to be in court for a so-called Article 32 hearing in which prosecutors must demonstrate they have enough evidence to proceed with a court-martial. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys will be able to call witnesses.