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Published : Tuesday, 22 Feb 2011, 11:01 PM EST Updated: Tuesday, 22 Feb 2011, 11:33 PM EST
By: Karen Hensel
LAWRENCEBURG, Ind. (WISH) – An Indiana soldier charged with murder is making international headlines. I-Team 8 investigated how the Indiana soldier is sitting within two of the more controversial aspects of the war in Afghanistan. It includes the controversy of the strained relationship between the U.S. and Afghan President Karzai and how the military treats soldiers with mental instability in the war zone.
Indiana soldier Pfc. David Lawrence faces the death penalty for killing a top Taliban commander in a prison cell last October. The I-Team 8 investigation however, begins a full month before the killing and a soldiers request for help.
Brett Lawrence, the step-father of David Lawrence remembers the first indication that something had gone wrong.
“A text message saying I am being charged with premeditated murder 8:30 in the morning on a Wednesday,” Lawrence said.
A tattered American flag flies vigilantly in a quiet rural neighborhood in Lawrenceburg, Ind. A blue star is watchful in the window. A message to Support the Troops is in the front yard of the Lawrence’s family home. David Lawrence is the middle of five kids.
“He wanted to do the right thing, which was defend his country. He has great grandfathers who served in World War II and a grandfather who served in Vietnam,” said Wendy Lawrence, his mom.
At age 17, David dropped out of high school to join the Indiana National Guard, and then went on to active duty with the U.S. Army. In July 2010, on his 20th birthday, Lawrence deployed to Afghanistan. Within weeks, roadside bombs killed eight men in his infantry division. Among those killed were two good friends. He was closest Chaplain Dale Goetz, the first chaplain killed at war since Vietnam. It would begin the downward spiral for David Lawrence.
“He called and said he was hallucinating, seeing people that were dead walking around in the room and saying he was hearing voices,” recalls Brett Lawrence. He saw disturbing hallucinations of the chaplain and said he “saw him with half a head walking around.”
David eventually went to commanders to seek medical help. After five days at combat stress in Kandahar, he was back on guard duty, pulling longer hours than before longer than other soldiers.
Doctors prescribed two drugs: Zoloft and Trazadone. It is a combination the FDA warns can cause suicidal thinking and there are warnings it may cause “altered consciousness, confusion, hallucinations and coma.”
“And (they) sent him back out into the outpost,” Brett Lawrence said.
Then on Oct. 17 David was assigned to guard Mullah Mohebullah, a top Taliban commander who had just been captured. Mohebullah was killed shot once in the face. Angry, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced Mohebullah’s death and vowed to launch his own investigation. The same day, the U.S. Army charged David Lawrence with premeditated murder. He was taken off all medication.
An Army interrogator says in the six hour questioning David Lawrence gave different versions of what happened. Those included that a ricochet bullet killed Mohebullah, then that the prisoner screamed and spit at him and moved as if he were about to jump up. David says he imagined all the people he knew being blown up and blacked out before the shooting. There is no audio or video tape of the interrogation and no witness to the alleged confession. The Army contends the Taliban prisoner was killed in his sleep.
“They put a weapon in his hand and told him to go guard this known Taliban commander. That was the negligence,” said James Culp, David Lawrence’s attorney.
A former JAG and paratrooper, Culp has been the lead civilian attorney on some of the highest profile military cases involving U.S. soldiers.
“When you go to combat stress and you get psychotropic medication and you come back to your unit, you need to be supervised, you need to be monitored,” Culp said. “You don’t need to be forgotten. That is what happened to Pfc. Lawrence and that is happening to a lot of people in the combat zone.”
Culp says this is the first time he has ever seen a court martial move so quickly. He says Lawrence was rushed through an Article 32, or preliminary hearing, before it was ever determined if he was competent to stand trial.
“I don’t understand it,” Yale Law School professor Gene Fiddell said. “An Article 32 investigating officer has to make a recommendation as to the disposition of the case and I don’t see how that can be done if there is a pending 706 board and a substantial question as to the mental state of the accused.”
Within days of the November pretrial hearing, President Barack Obama flew to Afghanistan, which raised questions.
“Was David’s case part of the president flying to Afghanistan? Sure I think it played a role,” Culp said. “There is a lot of scrutiny here and unfavorable attention. Let’s be sure to quickly address this in a court martial where we can demonstrate Pfc. Lawrence was acting alone and we’re (the U.S.) not responsible.”
But is the Army responsible?
Fellow soldiers had raised concerns. A medic and others testified from Afghanistan in the military preliminary hearing at Fort Carson. A prosecutor asked medic Dimitri Jenkins if the incident on Oct. 17 led him to talk to higher officials about David Lawrence. Jenkins said he talked to his senior medic, who advised him to keep an eye on David Lawrence. That was right before Lawrence went on leave.
When first charging him, the Army said Pfc. David Lawrence was not mentally ill. Then just two weeks ago, Army psychiatrists certified Lawrence as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia.
“It may be the first time in the history of the U.S. Army that in a murder case the Army’s own experts have ruled the accused was not criminally responsible,” Culp said.
Even so, the US Army has notified the Lawrence family they are proceeding with the court martial. If convicted, David Lawrence faces at the least life in prison up to the death penalty.
David’s mother, Wendy Lawrence, said she believes President Obama is making an example of her son.
“I tell people my son is being held a political prisoner of our own government to appease Harmid Karzai,” Wendy Lawrence said.
The Lawrence flag flies tattered. A family has been left in tatters by the military they say broke their heart and broke their son with what they call the Army’s version of broken justice.
The parents are out of money and are fighting to raise the $100,000 for medical and attorney fees to save their son’s life. They just received letters via certified mail from “The President of the U.S.” and the prosecutors threatening to fine or imprison them if they don’t turn over all emails, text and written mail from their son by Tuesday.