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A North Carolina National Guard member thought to be the first U.S. soldier convicted of murdering an Iraqi said he "snapped" and shot the 17-year-old boy after they had consensual sex, according to court-martial records released this week.
Pvt. Federico Daniel Merida, 21, of Biscoe, a tiny town south of Asheboro, pleaded guilty during a court-martial in Iraq to shooting the Iraqi national guard private, whose name the Army withheld.
Merida was sentenced Sept. 25 to 25 years in prison and reduced in rank. He will be dishonorably discharged.
Army officials at Forward Operating Base Danger, where the court-martial was held, withheld details of the case, saying the records had to be approved by a general. They released the records to The News & Observer on Thursday.
Maj. Neal E. O'Brien said Army rules required that most of the names be inked out, including that of the victim. The Los Angeles Times reported shortly after the court-martial that the victim's name was Falah Zaggam.
According to the records, Zaggam and Merida were on guard duty May 11 in a tower on the perimeter of an Army camp near Tikrit in northern Iraq. About 10:30 p.m., Merida shot Zaggam repeatedly with his M-4 carbine.
The "gay panic" motive was the third that Merida offered. He first told investigators that Zaggam demanded money at gunpoint. Later, he said he killed Zaggam because the boy forced him to have sex.
Interviewed a third time by skeptical investigators, Merida said he got angry after the two had consensual sex. When the boy went to the latrine, Merida began to craft an excuse for killing him.
According to the records, Merida told investigators that he picked up Zaggam's AK-47 rifle and chambered a bullet so that it was ready to fire. He then pulled out the magazine, which held the rest of the bullets, and put it aside.
When Zaggam returned, Merida handed the gun back. Merida then grabbed the boy's trigger finger, forcing him to fire a bullet into the ceiling.
Merida then radioed the camp headquarters and said Zaggam had tried to kill him after demanding money. Merida dropped the radio and raised his own gun, a short version of the M-16 assault rifle.
Merida first shot at the floor of the guard tower, then into Zaggam's legs, according to an account that Merida signed for the court-martial. Zaggam tried to wrest away the rifle, and Merida shot him in the groin. Zaggam clutched at a railing and fell down the stairs as Merida kept shooting.
"The accused fired a couple more rounds into the lifeless body ... then took his magazine out and set it aside, put his weapon down, and called ... to report that he had just killed the [Iraqi national guard] soldier who had tried to rob him," the account signed by Merida said.
The boy was hit by 11 bullets.
In an agreement with the Army that limited his prison sentence to no more than 25 years, Merida pleaded not guilty to premeditated murder but guilty to murder without premeditation. He pleaded guilty to two counts of giving false statements in his initial explanations. He was found not guilty of dereliction of duty for having consensual sex while he should have been guarding the camp.
During the court-martial, Merida apologized to the victim's family.
"He was a son, a brother, someone very important to them," he said. "I took someone they loved and cared for."
Plea for leniency
Friends and family members wrote the Army asking for a reduction in Merida's sentence, citing the fact that his son, a toddler, needs him and that his wife speaks little English and relies on him. Merida was born in Veracruz, Mexico, and moved to the United States as a child.
A man who answered the phone at the family's home in Biscoe declined to identify himself or say whether the family had heard from Merida recently. "I don't know nothing, man," he said, and he hung up.
Merida is confined at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., a Leavenworth spokeswoman said.
Merida is a member of the 113th Field Artillery Battalion's Battery B, based in Monroe. He deployed to Iraq early this year with an N.C. National Guard brigade of several thousand soldiers, which was placed under command of the 1st Infantry Division.
Maj. Robert Carver, a spokesman at the N.C. National Guard's Raleigh headquarters, said Guard leaders here knew little about the case. He said that if there was anything positive about the unpleasant case it was that it should serve notice to Iraqis about how justice should work.
"Obviously one of the things we're trying to do in Iraq is foster an environment that includes the rule of law rather than dictatorship, and hopefully this demonstrates that to the Iraqis," he said. "The rule of law was applied, and the guilty have been punished." http://newsobserver.com/news/story/1941428p-8299574c.html
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