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December 28th, 2006 - Cortez Submits Plea Agreement in Iraqi Rape, Murder Case

News article by the Desert Dispatch

Summary of the Mahmudiya Massacre

Cortez Submits Plea Agreement in Iraqi Rape, Murder Case


By Aaron Aupperlee

Desert Dispatch

Thursday, December 28, 2006


Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, 24, the Barstow native charged with rape and murder while serving in Iraq, has submitted a plea agreement.


"I can't say what the plea is or whether it has been approved," said Cortez attorney William Cassara.


The plea agreement will go to the commanding general of Fort Campbell, Ky., Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, for his approval before Cortez's Feb. 20 trial date, Cassara said. Details will be released later.


The military has charged four Fort Campbell soldiers and one civilian in the March 12 rape and murder of a 14-yearold Iraqi girl and the murder of her family. Cortez was arraigned a month ago on charges of pre-meditated murder, felony murder, kidnapping, rape and assorted military charges. He is being held at the Christian County Jail, a civilian jail near Fort Campbell, under a different name. The assumed name is to protect Cortez from all the media attention surrounding the case, Cassara said.


Other pleas


Pfc. Jesse V. Spielman, 22, could still face life in prison if convicted of the rape and murder.


Spec. James P. Barker, 23, pleaded guilty to rape and murder in November and agreed to testify against the other soldiers.


Steven D. Green, 21, was discharged before details about the case surfaced. He pleaded not guilty to charges in a Kentucky civilian court.


Barker's plea ag reement to testify did not influence the decision to submit a plea agreement, Cassara said. Cortez's plea agreement process, Cassara said, started before Barker's plea became public.


"Barker said some things harmful to the case, and Barker said some things helpful to the case," Cassara said.


Cassara said Barker testified that Cortez had been involved with the March 12 incident but also talked a lot about the amount of stress the soldiers were under.


"If nothing else, it has brought to light some of the stresses and strife facing our guys overseas," Cassara said.


According to Cassara, the soldiers were sleep-deprived and living on energy drinks and sleeping pills in a situation where anyone outside the fence was considered the enemy. He plans to bring up these factors during the defense portion of Cortez's trial as well.


Plea process


If the commanding general approves Cortez's plea agreement, a sentencing trial will occur in February. William Bruzzo, a former major in the Marine Corps and civilian and military criminal defense lawyer in Santa Ana, said the defense usually calls character witnesses and presents honors and distinctions earned during service in an attempt to sway the judge toward a lighter sentence.


Because of the severity of Cortez's charges, Cassara said, the judge may be legally only able to choose between life in prison without parole or life in prison with parole. A plea agreement allows someone to serve less time than the legal minimum. He said Barker pleaded to a 90-year jail sentence because it was lower than the legal minimum of life in prison with parole.


Bruzzo said the government usually approves plea agreements in rape and murder cases when the government plans to use the defendant as a government witness in a different case. He called plea agreements in capital cases very rare but said, "You're seeing a lot recently because you're seeing multiple defendants."


In cases with multiple defendants, Bruzzo said, the government often makes deals with some of the defendants in order to create a strong case against a few individuals.


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