FORT KNOX, Ky. -- An Indiana National Guardsman pleaded guilty yesterday to negligent homicide in the death of an Iraqi police officer, a crime he was accused of attempting to cover up by shooting himself in the stomach.
Corporal Dustin Berg, 22, will spend 18 months in prison and receive a bad conduct discharge from the Army.
Berg, of Ferdinand, Ind., had changed his story multiple times during the investigation, initially saying the Iraqi had pointed an AK-47 at him to prevent Berg from reporting insurgent activity. Yesterday, however, Berg said Iraqi police officers as a matter of habit carried their guns with the barrels pointed slightly upward.
''I shouldn't have automatically considered him a threat," Berg said. ''I misread the situation."
It was the latest in at least a dozen court-martials of US troops accused in the deaths of Iraqi civilians.
Berg was accused of killing the Iraqi police officer in November 2003, then shooting himself in the stomach to give the impression of a gunfight and to block an investigation. ''I thought I was going to die," Berg testified during a May hearing. ''I felt I had no choice but to fear for my life."
He later admitted that he shot himself with the Iraqi's weapon in an attempt to limit questions since there were no witnesses. Three other soldiers from his unit were under investigation at the time, and Berg said he was scared he would be, too.
Prosecutors had asked that Berg receive a dishonorable discharge from the Army and nearly four years in confinement. He had faced up to 14 years in prison.
Berg's civilian lawyer, Charles Gittins, asked the court to discharge Berg but not confine him to a military prison because Berg is newly married and has a child on the way.
''He's already punished himself; he shot himself," Gittins said. ''He's already pleaded guilty. He's already accepted responsibility, but a lengthy term of confinement will have no rehabilitative effect."
The charges against Berg raised questions about whether a soldier's right to defend himself depends on the presence of a witness. Most military personnel accused of murder argue self-defense because there are few other options available on the battlefield, said Gary Solis, a law professor at the US Military Academy at West Point. Soldiers can contend that they were acting in self-defense or that they were following orders, Solis said.
At least eight US soldiers have been convicted or have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the deaths of Iraqis.