FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- An Army sergeant charged with a grenade attack that killed two US officers in Kuwait went on trial yesterday, with his lawyer trying to stave off a possible death sentence by arguing that his client suffered from mental illness.
But a military prosecutor said Sergeant Hasan Akbar knew exactly what he was doing, pointing to his detailed diary entries before the March 2003 attack and the fact that he stole the grenades and cut power to his camp just before striking.
Premeditation is the central issue in the court-martial of the 33-year-old Akbar, who confessed several times and allegedly told investigators he carried out the attack in the opening days of the Iraq war because he was worried that US forces would harm fellow Muslims.
With the fact of the attack not in dispute, his lawyers hope to spare him a possible death penalty for premeditated murder by alleging a history of mental illness that stretched back to his teen years and was apparent to the military.
''The enemy was in Sergeant Akbar's mind, and had been there 15 years," defense lawyer Major Dan Brookhart told the military jury in his opening statement.
Brookhart said Akbar's mental illness stemmed from the sexual abuse of his sister by his stepfather, and as a teenager he was diagnosed with depression and an adjustment disorder. He also developed a sleep disorder and sometimes fell asleep while standing up. In the Army, his problems led to Akbar being demoted from a squad leader's position and being given menial duties in his combat engineer company.
''He was basically a failure as a soldier," Brookhart said. He noted that as the 101st awaited orders to invade Iraq in the spring of 2003, Akbar was panicked by talk among his colleagues about their plans to kill Iraqis and rape women.
Military prosecutor Captain John Benson countered that evidence indicates Akbar did extensive planning. In diary entries and actions -- which included stealing grenades and turning off a generator that lit the camp -- Akbar laid the groundwork for his fatal attack.
The brigade was on alert for an enemy attack, Benson said, but ''their enemy was already inside the wire."
Fourteen soldiers were wounded, by the grenades or when Akbar opened fire with a rifle in the ensuing chaos. Captain Mark Wisher testified yesterday about being blown through the air by the blast. He was wounded on the right side of his body and suffered a collapsed lung, lacerated liver and punctured diaphragm.
''I heard something hit the wooden floor of our tent and then bounce. I've seen movies, Hollywood movies, and grenades sounded like that," said Wisher.
The court-martial marks the first time since the Vietnam War that a soldier has been prosecuted for the murder of another soldier during wartime.