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Ex-soldier's trial hits home

PADUCAH — The first former Army soldier to be charged as a civilian under a 2000 law that allows him to be prosecuted for alleged crimes committed overseas faces a trial of his peers — in a federal courtroom in Kentucky.

Steven Dale Green, a former member of the 101st Airborne Division, was accused along with four fellow soldiers of raping a 14-year-old girl and killing her and her family in Mahmoudiya, Iraq, but he won't face an Iraqi or military jury.

Instead, Green will face jurors in Paducah, more than 6,700 miles away, under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act. Jury selection started Monday morning.

Congress passed the law in 2000 to allow U.S. authorities to prosecute former military personnel for crimes committed overseas. The law specifically cites a "jurisdictional gap" that leaves perpetrators unpunished for crimes by Americans occurring in countries that won't prosecute them or that the United States is unable to investigate or prosecute. It also covers civilians, their spouses and military contractors.

The use of the law against Green, who faces 17 charges including murder and sexual assault, has drawn fire from his attorneys as well as the attorney for a former Marine who was tried under the law.

They argue that the law wasn't intended for defendants like Green, who left the Army before his co-defendants faced courts-martial.

"The law wasn't designed to do what it's doing to Green," said Darren Wolff, a former military attorney who represents Green.

But one proponent of the law disagrees and said the law is functioning as it should.

"Congress seems to have envisioned someone just like him," said Scott Silliman, executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Opening arguments in the case are scheduled to begin April 27. During jury selection Monday, U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell told potential jurors that the trial is expected to last three to six weeks. Russell also told jurors that the alleged crime took place in Iraq, and he explained the circumstances of Green's arrest.

"It will be your duty to follow the law, even if you personally disagree with it," Russell told a group of prospective jurors.

Green, with a military-style crew cut but dressed in civilian clothes, appeared in court Monday, but he left before the first prospective jurors entered the room.

As attorneys questioned jurors in Paducah, some Mahmoudiya residents were reading the London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily newspaper, which carried news of the case.

"A US soldier faces death penalty," said one headline.

"We don't want only this American soldier to be hanged," said Shihab Ahmed, a relative of the raped girl. "We want more than him to be executed. And any American soldier who abuses any Iraqi citizen should be hanged and executed."

Jabir al-Hamdani, the head of the local council, also called for the death penalty. "This soldier has abused Iraqis as a whole, abused humanity and distorted the image of the U.S.," he said.

Green, 22, of Midland, Texas, and four other soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, based at Fort Campbell, were investigated after an Iraqi girl, Abeer Qassim al-Janabi, was raped and her body set afire. Her family also was killed on March 12, 2006, in an area known as the "Triangle of Death."

By the time the Army pressed charges in June 2006, Green had been honorably discharged with a personality disorder and returned to the United States. The other four soldiers were charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and each faced a court martial. Three pleaded guilty, and a jury convicted one. They received sentences ranging from five years to 110 based on their acknowledged roles in the attack.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Marisa Ford, who is prosecuting the case, said at least three of those soldiers as well as members of the slain girl's surviving family might be called as witnesses in the case.

Because Green had been discharged — and the military refused to allow him to re-enlist — federal prosecutors filed an indictment against Green, charging him with conspiracy, murder and sexual assault.