Soldier Acquitted in Shooting of Iraqi

Associated Press | May 27, 2005

FORT HOOD, Tex., May 26 - An Army staff sergeant was acquitted of murder Thursday in the death of an unarmed Iraqi he said he shot to save a fellow soldier.

A jury of four soldiers and two officers deliberated for less than three hours before finding Staff Sgt. Shane Werst not guilty of premeditated murder. He had faced a maximum of life in prison without parole.

Before the jury announced the verdict, the judge found Werst innocent of obstruction of justice, so the jury's verdict on that charge was not revealed. Col. Theodore Dixon said he decided to rule on that charge.

Werst's family shrieked, cried and hugged after the verdict was read.

"Soldiers have to be able to know that they're not being second-guessed in the battlefield and in close-quarters combat," defense attorney David Sheldon said.

Prosecutors said the killing of Naser Ismail, a suspected insurgent, was in retaliation for an Army captain's death earlier that day. Werst, 32, said he shot Ismail only because he was lunging for an unsuspecting soldier's weapon during house raids in Iraq. Prosecutors declined to comment after the verdict.

Werst testified Thursday that he does not regret shooting Ismail, but acknowledged his actions afterward in making the slaying look like self-defense were wrong.

"I would still to this day fire on that man, sir," Werst said.

Werst said he and a fellow soldier went into a house with Ismail because he thought the Iraqi would turn over more weapons. Werst earlier found and confiscated a pistol in Ismail's house.

After shooting Ismail, Werst said he quickly fired the Iraqi pistol into a couch and told the other soldier, Pfc. Nathan Stewart, to put the man's fingerprints on it.

Werst said that he was scared because he had never shot anyone before, and that Stewart also was "freaking out." He said he should not have tried to make the shooting look like self-defense.

"It was wrong. I have no idea why I did that," Werst said.

Prosecutor Capt. Evan Seamone said Werst's story does not make sense.

"If this is a legitimate kill, if this follows the rules of engagement...why in the world would he have to create a lie?" Seamone said in closing arguments.

Werst, of El Toro, Calif., was a combat engineer in the 3rd Brigade Combat Team at Fort Carson, Colo., part of the Fort Hood-based 4th Infantry Division.