A military jury found a veteran special forces soldier not guilty on Wednesday of premeditated murder and mutilation in the death of an Afghani man.
Army Special Forces Master Sergeant Joseph Newell, 39, of Tecumseh, Michigan, was charged in a shooting last March in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. The 10-member jury deliberated for about four hours on Wednesday before returning the verdict.
As the verdict was read, Newell’s family hugged each other and sobbed, while Newell, sitting at the defense table lowered his head into his hands and appeared to weep. Newell had faced a life sentence if convicted of premeditated murder.
As the jurors left the courtroom, he climbed over the railing between the table and spectators and hugged his family members, starting with his wife.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Newell’s stepfather Bob Feldkamp said. “Our family has gone through misery for a year. I knew from the start he was not guilty.”
Newell testified this week he shot the unidentified man twice with his rifle after the man lunged at him during questioning.
Newell said he had stopped the suspected Taliban insurgent’s vehicle after it appeared he was watching the convoy and communicating with other Taliban.
Newell’s Green Beret Special Forces team was assigned to a remote base called Forward Operating Base Robinson that was about six hours by road from Kandahar. He testified his team was responsible for killing about 200 enemy fighters.
During closing arguments, prosecutor Captain Seamus Barry said Newell admitted shooting the man but evidence “shows that this man did not constitute a threat on that day.”
Barry said another soldier and an interpreter were present and said they didn’t see the Afghani man make a move toward Newell and that Newell himself had said the man wasn’t a threat.
“The accused had it in his mind that he was going to kill this man” after seeing a mobile phone with a picture of a Russian machine gun on its screen, Barry said. “This man wasn’t armed. He was utterly defenseless when he was put into custody.”
But civilian defense attorney Todd Conormon urged the jurors to consider the circumstances that “the insurgent made a threatening move and this is self defense.”
“We tell our soldiers that every soldier has the right to self defense, to kill the enemy and you will not be second-guessed,” Conormon said. “We tell our soldiers if you wait, pause or hesitate ... you could be killed.”
The defense lawyer said there was no attempt by Newell to hide the shooting. He also said he cut the victim’s ear off because he was told to by his commander.
He said the government didn’t call any witnesses to refute Newell’s testimony, but the prosecutor said during rebuttal arguments that its witnesses already refuted Newell and there was no need to recall them.