May 20, 2005
By Sandra Jontz
Stars and Stripes Mideast edition
WÜRZBURG, Germany — A military judge late Wednesday sentenced a veteran 1st Infantry Division soldier to eight years in prison for killing an Iraqi detainee last fall.
Lt. Col. Robin Hall also ordered Sgt. 1st Class Jorge Diaz, 34, of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, reduced to the lowest enlisted rank and dishonorably discharged from the Army. Earlier she found him guilty of unpremeditated murder, maltreatment of a prisoner and impeding the investigation of the murder.
Because of a plea agreement, Diaz's sentence will be cut to seven years. The 1st ID commander, Maj. Gen. John Batiste, may reduce the sentence, but not increase it.
The sentence shocked troops who served with Diaz. Many of them testified that the 17-year veteran had been an outstanding soldier and treated prisoners well until the events of Oct. 24-25 in Albu Shakur.
First Sgt. Cory Iwamura, senior noncommissioned officer of Diaz's unit in Iraq, said Diaz was among his best platoon sergeants. Staff Sgt. Rasheed Bracey, who served under him, said the platoon had been trained so well they continued without a hitch when Diaz was transferred after the shooting.
“Many of us, to this day, would still follow him into combat,” Bracey said.
The troops from Diaz's Company C had been watching Albu Shakur since they arrived in the Balad area in March 2004 as part of the 1st ID's Task Force 1-77. The Sunni village had been the source of bomb and mortar attacks that killed and wounded several U.S. soldiers.
During a patrol Oct. 24, an elderly woman identified a teenage boy as the guardian of a weapons cache in Albu Shakur. Diaz blindfolded him and cuffed him to the grill of a Humvee. He pointed a pistol at the youth's head, hit and choked him, and forced him to hold a smoke grenade with the pin pulled. Later, the youth was released.
The woman also identified Thaher Khaleefa Ahmed as the local leader of the insurgency and said he had hidden weapons in his house. The first search Oct. 24 turned up only a rifle. She urged Diaz to look again, this time digging under a woodpile.
Diaz's platoon returned the next day, and he ordered Khaleefa, his father, and his younger brother bound with plastic handcuffs and placed in the courtyard while his men searched the house. They found another rifle, a machine gun, ammunition, anti-American propaganda, technical manuals for Humvees and a newly filled hole under the woodpile.
After questioning the father, Diaz told Sgt. Fernando Alvarez to help Khaleefa stand up and step away. Then Diaz raised his rifle and shot the prisoner in the face, killing him instantly.
One soldier testified he heard Diaz say afterwards, “I might have [expletive] up.” To another, Diaz said, “I'm going to go to hell for this.”
On the stand, Diaz apologized to his family, Khaleefa's family and his unit.
“I killed a man who should not have been killed,” he said tearfully. “It'll be with me until the day I die.”
Diaz read from an e-mail he wrote to his wife the day of the shooting.
“I ended a man's life, and I'm not proud of it,” he said. “Yes, he was a bad guy, and he was probably responsible for killing soldiers. But that doesn't make me feel any better.”
Capt. Brian Sardelli, the military prosecutor, had asked for a 14-year sentence.
“The victim may not have been a nice guy. We'll never know that, because he's dead,” Sardelli said. “We are no better than Saddam and his henchmen if we're going around executing people.”
Capt. Clint Campion, Diaz's co-counsel, asked Hall to consider the wartime conditions.
“This was not an execution,” he said. “This is something done in the heat of battle.”
As the judge pronounced her sentence, Diaz's mother, sister and wife sobbed loudly. Afterwards, he shook hands with several members of his unit who stayed until the end. Then he tearfully hugged his wife, Annette, and his two young sons before leaving the courtroom.
Outside, his sister Maria Diaz said her family thought the sentence was too harsh. She said her mother is suffering from serious kidney disease.
“My brother might not see my mother alive again,” she said. “I feel betrayed, completely betrayed.”