November 17th, 2009
02:12 PM ET

Killings at the Canal: Convicted of murder

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/11/17/art.vert.canal.hatley.jpg caption="Former First Sgt. John Hatley." width=292 height=320]

Scott Zamost
Senior Investigative Producer

For months, we wanted to hear from John Hatley.

He's the former first sergeant who had the idea to take four Iraqi detainees to a Baghdad canal and, along with two other sergeants, kill them.

Special Investigations Unit Correspondent Abbie Boudreau and I traveled to Germany over the summer where we interviewed Hatley's wife, Kim, and his attorney David Court. We told them it was important to hear from Hatley since he never testified during his court martial. Our only request: He should tell us what he wants the public to know.

Hatley is now serving a 40-year prison sentence at Fort Leavenworth after being convicted of premeditated murder and conspiracy to commit premeditated murder.

After numerous requests, one day in September, a two-page single-spaced typed letter arrived in the mail at CNN.

Hatley began, "I've been contacted numerous times through third party sources that you have requested a statement from me. Obviously, I'm sure you understand my apprehensiveness in making a statement to the media, but there are some issues I would like to take this opportunity to address."

He wrote of the "frustration" with the Army detainee policy that allowed the enemy to be released two or three days later because there was not enough evidence to hold them.

"An additional insult is that the units that capture these individuals are the same ones responsible to pick them up and release them. We've repeatedly found ourselves fighting the same enemy again and again."

He writes that the detainee rules have "extensive flaws" that the enemy "consistently exploits these to facilitate their release."

While he does not specifically address what happened, he does state: "I assure you the military spared no expense in the prosecution of my soldiers and me. If they would have spent half the time, effort and money in prosecuting the enemy as they had in prosecuting us, I assure you we would have never found ourselves in our current situation."

Finally, he says he love and prays for soldiers oversees and wishes them a safe return. He writes: "Also, don't worry about us, we'll be fine. As they'll understand, this is probably the safest place we've been in the last 10 years."

soundoff (85 Responses)
  1. Mal

    It is a terrible shame, no doubt they were good soldiers. I was a bit taken aback to learn that one was a First Sergeant. Not that a 1SG is not capable of such a thing but, by the time you get to the rank of 1SG you have been around a while and have earned the special trust and confidence that goes along with the rank. What he did was wrong and he knows it was wrong. Still, the job of a soldier is to administer violence to kill the enemy as quickly and efficiently as you can. The quicker the better. I guess the last "good" where a soldier was able to clearly do his job as trained was the Korean conflict. There were two (or three sides) and all had their distinct uniform and side of the battlefield. All the wars since VIet-Nam have been messy, so called asymmetrical convolutions where we fight an indistinct enemy that hits and runs. That can be extremely frustrating as Lt "Rusty" Callen can attest. Furthermore, not only can a soldier not fight back as trained, he has to deal with "touchy-feely" nation building tasks. Something completely alien to his training of blowing things up and killing the enemy. We are not trained for this type of warfare yet and unfortunately, the "good" old wars are gone forever.

    November 19, 2009 at 3:49 pm |
  2. Stefanie Venice, CA

    There is certainly no easy answer or comment to make about this horrible situation. It is disturbing to hear the story told by these soldiers, in a somewhat abstract and calm manner. There are many conflicts and issues affecting our soldiers deployed to Iraq. However, a soldier's good judgment and her or his humanity should never be an issue.

    After working with the Department of the Navy as a civilian ICU nurse for many years, I have deep respect for active duty military members. They make a commitment to serve our country and it comes with risks that most people will never see in a lifetime. As civilians, we may not understand daily life as a soldier, yet we do appreciate the gravity of this situation and its far-reaching future impact.

    The comments posted here; from those who feel sorry for these soldiers, seem upset because they were reported or praise them as being heroes are disquieting and unfortunate. There seems to be a complete disconnect between how our behavior, in any foreign country, directly affects future behavior toward us.

    We now occupy Iraq; presumably for the purposes of “helping” the Iraqi people restructure their government, rebuild their homes, their businesses and their lives. Yet there are numerous reports of violence toward detainees and civilians, by American soldiers or private mercenaries representing the United States, for no acceptable reason.

    These men confessed to murder and there should be every expectation, they would be held accountable.

    The actions of a few, whether committing good acts or committing crimes, defines us as a nation.

    November 19, 2009 at 2:31 pm |
  3. Bill

    I had a few encounters with 1SG Hatley when he was moved to Housing while he awaited trial. He was a very professional and caring NCO. I would go in to his office and talk to him about housing issues that I was trying to resolve for my soldiers and he always treated me with the uppermost respect. I think what he did was a very honorable thing and think he should not have been punished. No one can possibly know unless they have been a comabt zone watching your friends die beside you and fighting an enemy you can't see. I wish 1SG Hately and his family best wishes.

    November 19, 2009 at 1:44 pm |
  4. Maryjane

    There is no excuse for what they did. It doesn't matter if you're in Iraq or in the US. I am also in the military, and we learn to control our emotions so we can stay focus in getting the job done, the right way. These senior NCOs failed to do the right thing, to live up to our Army values....it is what sets us apart from other countries and their military forces. Thank you SGT Cunningham for having the courage to tell the truth.

    November 19, 2009 at 1:16 pm |
  5. Jim in Ozark, MO

    They were wrong, tried, and found guilty. Enough said. What they did was a small scale version of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. What the Nazis did in WWII throughout Europe; what the Japanese also did in Korea and across the Pacific; and what we did on some occasions in both Theatres. The Germans just arrested and will likely try a 90 year old ex-Nazi. They were no better than their Musllim enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan. As soldiers we are trained on what we can and cannot do; we received special training about following illegal orders after My Lai, and still receive training on how to fight. If a cop on his beat did this against pushers, killers, and other felons we'd string him/her up. As a retired soldier, I cannot condone their actions nor agree with any lunatic writing support for their actions. They are criminals who experienced the effect of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). I sent too many soldiers to prison for far less than the actions of these men.

    November 19, 2009 at 12:13 pm |
  6. et

    Not equating the motives- but when soldiers start justifying war crimes, it is the same warped thinking that the radical Muslim youth have in war torn areas who claim that "we" dont know because we dont go through what they are going through. As I said, NOT equating the motives, but such thinking is equally disturbing. There are rules and laws of war that must be followed. Killing POWs is against it- that is why such acts are called "war crimes."

    Those who are trying to justify such murders, are insulting not just the US Constitution, but also insulting those just and fair soldiers who have been killed or injured in fighting these wars towards establishing a just democracy WITHOUT compromising on their ethics and laws! Period.

    November 19, 2009 at 11:51 am |
  7. Sundara

    When the soldier said his dad would have been able to understand where as him mother couldn't, I found it hard to believe. I felt so bad for him. It's wrong, but they did what they felt at the time was the right thing to do. I adore the American army, I truly do. But I wish every other incident of so called "war crimes" was brought to the table like this. Thanks to this documentary people are saying, that's not right, those Soldiers deserve respect. But if it wasn't for this, they'd probably just keep screaming "war crimes!." EVERY soldier deserves the same respect. There are so many armies that people just accused of war crimes without properly understanding why they did what they did. I just wish they would have the same opportunity as these three soldiers do.

    November 18, 2009 at 6:31 pm |
  8. Andre

    I think the war is getting to some off these soliders.the fighting seems like it will never end.

    November 18, 2009 at 6:20 pm |
  9. judy beckman

    We are at war. These soldiers were sent over there to lay their lives on the altar of our country . I can understand why they did what they did, are they supposed to give these people another chance to kill them or other soldiers over there. These people are taught to hate us, they will always hate us and according to their beliefs the more Americans they kill the more their God loves them and they are rewarded by a place in heaven for killing as many Americans as they can. Did 9-11 not teach us that. How many of our sons, daughters, husbands, wives, American soldiers are sent home every week in a flag draped coffin? These (murderers)?? are supposed to give them second and third chances to kill more of their fellow soldiers? I think not, as I said we are at war, in war it is kill or be killed. My prayers are with these men and their loved ones.

    November 18, 2009 at 5:58 pm |
  10. PV

    I am a Vet, though I did not see combat. I do know lots of Vets who saw combat in wars going back to WWII. In combat, there are times when one has to do what is necessary to survive. These soldiers were in that situation, and they did what they had to do to survive, period. This kind of thing happens in all wars. It's sad that these soldiers had their fates decided by some textbook heroes who do nothing but shine seats with their rear ends.

    November 18, 2009 at 4:01 pm |
  11. Former Staff Sergeant of 1SG Hatley's

    I deployed twice with 1SG Hatley and SFC Mayo. They are both great men. They helped me develop into the NCO that I am today. I was deployed with them during the time frame of these charges. It was a very stressful time for our unit and we took lots of casualties. It is very frustrating to arrest individuals day in and day out, to only be fighting them again in a few days. I do not think that their actions were wrong! Who's life’s are more important our Troops or the insurgents’ that are trying to kill our troops on a daily bases. John, Joseph and Michael should all receive pardons for what they have done and be allowed to remain in the military and finish their military careers.

    November 18, 2009 at 3:08 pm |
  12. Avalon

    Our military machine trains these men to kill, arms them, pays them and ships them half way around the world to do just that. Then we are surprised when they do. We do it in the name of our God. God bless us and keep us. But the commandment said "Thou shalt not kill". I didn't read any exceptions. But we have free will so I guess we all shall reap the consequences. We could stop. But then all of defense contractors making alot of money would have to try to find a new job like the rest of america. Those monies would be one hell of an economic stimulus.

    November 18, 2009 at 3:04 pm |
  13. Melissa

    Murder is murder. It doesn't matter if these soldiers were fighting the same men over and over again, it doesn't matter if the detainees were foreigners, they still took the detainees into the boonies to murder them execution style. Its wrong, plain and simple. These soldiers got what they deserve.

    November 18, 2009 at 3:01 pm |
  14. Steve

    Firstly, Innocent people dont shoot at American soldiers. Secondly, from the investigations, no missing persons report was filed and this is standard practice in Iraq, so they can collect monies for lost, wounded or killed family members. This proves that these men were foreign fighters. How many times can our soldiers turn detainess over to the detention center just to see them released again? How many more of their Fellow soldiers would have died if it were not for their actions. These guys are Heroes and deserve to be free.

    November 18, 2009 at 3:00 pm |
  15. Rex

    I cannot comment on the seargeants actions, being an old soldier myself and experiencing combat in vietnam, I can tell you that many times we where not allowed to shoot until shot at and then we had to get permission to shoot back...figure that. We lost a lot of troops in vietnam because of that particular rule of engagement..let me ask you this. If you had a bad guy standing in your door with a gun in his hand pointed at you, would you take the time to call a judge or lawyer or police officer to ask for permission to shoot him in self defense?

    November 18, 2009 at 1:52 pm |
  16. Beverly

    These guys were found with weapons immediately after these soldiers were shot at......during time of war they are called the ENEMY!!!! These weren't "helpless civilians".....these soldiers are not murders....they saved lives in the future by taking out these thugs. Which one of you would like to see these same guys back on the roads with their weapons shooting at one of YOUR relatives????

    November 18, 2009 at 1:30 pm |
  17. Paul Ernest Show

    Anderson, one cannot help but have mixed feelings about these things. As a 7 yrs old kid, I have witnessed war and seen soldiers being hastely buried because they are under fire. In the heat of the moment or depending on what some soldiers have recently experienced, there is some element of temporary insanity on the part of soldiers, when they are fighting on the battlefields or encountering gunfires. These soldiers, sometimes, loose their sense of right and wrong and just want victory at all cost or revenge by all means.

    November 18, 2009 at 1:24 pm |
  18. Nancy

    My prayers go out to the Soldiers and their families. I don't think one of us as a citizen can pass judgement on their actions. ROE ?? What, they have to wait to be shot at before they can engage?? These low lives hide behind women and children and even put on women's clothes and then shoot at our Soldiers. It's WAR, not a video game, its real bullets and real bombs and real deaths and real injuries! Only in America we would do this to our OWN.

    November 18, 2009 at 12:25 pm |
  19. Coleen

    I am the mother of Joshua Hartson, I am VERY Proud of my son and the men that were with him that day! My son is a Hero and all of the men involved in this story will forever be held with the highest respect from our family. I have heard stories from my son, I listen and I cry behind his back for the pain he has gone through and will continue to go through. The men in this story should not have been put on trial, they should have been honored as heros. Joshua comes from a family in which many members have served our contry and I know my father who was honored a purple heart and had many many medals from the vietnam war prior to his death last year stated to me he was very very Proud of his grandson Joshua for what he did over in Iraq and how he chose to stand by his men, he had never been prouder for a job well done and for Joshua to Stand Tall and be proud!

    November 18, 2009 at 12:24 pm |
  20. Rob

    It is sad that he felt frustrated enough to take the "law" in to his own hands. A soldiers job is tough enough when you know who the enemy is and your job is to defend or attack that enemy. When we constantly use our forces as police in other countries we risk them having the training of a killer being used to execute law enforcement. It is not why they joined (in most cases) Americans constantly get angry about "police actions" and our government being on the wrong side of our own morality when it comes to military intervention. This is a consequence and I pray for all soldiers and thank them for there service.

    He has rules to follow he did not it is called a breech of command it is simple from that perspective but in execution I can imagine how gray these areas can be.

    November 18, 2009 at 11:58 am |
  21. Larry W. Shroyer

    You must be kidding!

    We sent these men overseas – to protect our country and this means following the training. I know what the training is. I can't believe American people can allow anyone to be sent to prison for killing an enemy – and they are enemies or we would not be there. I don't care if they tortured anyone including the women and children – they are doing their duty. We are a free nation because of our military, ask anyone, including, especially including the immigrants. If we send men to jail for defending the United States – all of our "hero's" would be there.

    November 18, 2009 at 11:10 am |
  22. Tammy

    John Hatleys soldiers are his sons and daughters. I ask you...if the same enemy were continuously returning to kill your children, because our asinine rules of engagement wouldn't protect them, what would you do?
    How many mother's, father's, son's, daughter's returned home to their families because of this action.
    I hope you will not kid yourself into thinking that this sort of protection, and I do believe it was protection of his soldiers, did not happen in others wars. It happened in WWII, Vietnam, Korean, but I guess you didn't have Americans turning on their own men.
    70,000 plus detainees have been released to kill again. Ask a parent, whose child came home in a box, if our rules for holding detainees are appropriate for the situation. John Hatley is a hero.

    November 18, 2009 at 11:09 am |
  23. Nevada

    What purpose does this investigation serve? Splashing their poor choice across the news for everyone to judge them. Obviously they are wrestling with their conscience and the military is handling the justice. Leave them alone to find their peace.

    November 18, 2009 at 10:54 am |
  24. Corey from Pennsylvania

    Watch a documentary on the History Channel and you will hear soldiers from WWII admit to such actions against the Japanese soldiers. Although I don't agree with the actions I can't say that I wouldn't do the same thing. If I had the same person shooting at me time and time again eventually I would be fed up with the system.

    November 18, 2009 at 10:36 am |
  25. Erik

    Are we trained to kill? Yes, trained to kill but not murder. As a soldier who has been to Iraq twice I can tell you first hand that the way we handle detainees is often better than how police handle our own citizens. Unfortunately it's the few that taint the rest, but I am not going to sit here and pass judgment on these soldiers because I wasn't there.

    Every situation is different and especially when you are fighting a political war. Most units in Iraq have Law Enforcement Liaison (Civilian contractors) that were once former detectives in cities or even worked for the FBI. Usually, they give us guidance on what to look for when we detain an individual in order to make sure that prisoner does not get back out into the general populace for a certain amount of time. I had once Liaison once tell me that the Army and Marine Corps have their hands tie behind their backs often when dealing with detainees. It's frustrating and it's unfortunate it happened.

    November 18, 2009 at 10:00 am |
  26. Mel

    I don't know how anyone could fail to understand why these men did what they did. I absolutely understand why these men felt like they were protecting themselves and their fellow soldiers.

    They are sent to fight a war.... in wars people die. Soldiers are trained to fight, to kill, the enemy. What a fine line the government has between fighting in the war and murder.

    John Hatley served his country for 19 1/2 years. It makes me incredibly sad that this is how his country repays his service to us.

    November 18, 2009 at 9:42 am |
  27. Jerry

    I sympathize with the American soldiers who were put in a very tough position. But being in the military also means following orders, even if you don't agree with them. We can't condone soldiers making up their own rules. Also, I wonder about the assumption that their actions made other soldiers safer. If it had been kept secret, perhaps. But now that it is publicly known what they did, it seriously undermines our effort to 'win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people'. We Americans tend to give our soldiers the benefit of the doubt that the people they executed were in fact insurgents, but Iraqi's will not be so generous. Perhaps a mistake was made, perhaps innocents were executed, and if they think that, it could inspire many more Iraqi's to try to kill U.S. soldiers, making them less safe.

    November 18, 2009 at 9:24 am |
  28. Frank

    This is a tough one. What they did was not right under "normal" circumstances. War is no normal circumstance. And this is no "typical" enemy. This is war, not the hood. And this was no My Lai massacre. These were enemy combatants.

    Punish them? Sure. Life in prison? No way. 40 years? No way. 20 years? No way. 5 years is more than enough.

    Isn't it strange how we offer up our children...our flesh and blood for complete strangers in a foreign land? I am convinced this sacrifice is unappreciated by the people of both Iraq and Afghanistan–and the World.

    November 18, 2009 at 9:09 am |
  29. OIF-OEF Vet

    This is one of those few "crimes" that was tailor made for a presidential pardon. These men took appropriate action in order to protect their fellow Soldiers. That makes them outstanding NCO's, and this Army needs them and their experience.

    November 18, 2009 at 8:44 am |
  30. Understand

    wow.... You know i read all these blogs and i have just one thing to say. When did this country beocme so judgmental of its own? To think that our government send our soldiers to war and the only thing we can do is bad mouth and judge them the way we do. Like it or not this is war.... POWs.. give me a break, these so called POWs were trying to kill these soldier's and when they ran out of ammo they knew it would be a walk in the park to just give up and live to fight another day.. We're so hard on winning other countries heart that we forget to even give a heart to our own.....Been in this military life for almost a decade. I do it because there's no greater honor than to serve next to some wonderful individuals who have loyalty, duty, integrity, selfless service, honor, personal courage....something our government should try... Good luck to the families of these brave soldier's...I hope their families don't abandon them, like our country have done....

    November 18, 2009 at 7:01 am |
  31. Wil

    I feel sorry for these 3 heroes... This is not your normal war people. These people are using little kids strapped with bombs to kill not only our soldiers, but innocent civilians and your saying what these three devoted men did was dishonorable in war.. Last time I looked the enemy has decapitated our oldiers alive and your screaming dishonor.. The only dishonor is locking these men when they dealt justice when no justice was being dealt. Out of the 80000 prisoners captured during this war 77000 were released, if that's not a lacking of justice I don't know what is... This men are trained to fight and wake up every day or night in a warzone, unless you have been there YOU have no right to criticize their decision..

    November 18, 2009 at 5:43 am |
  32. Marion

    We are at war and our men and women over there are being killed every day. The enemy does not follow our rules of engagement. These soldiers should not have to have so much proof in order for captives to be locked up. Our enemy is not keeping our soldiers alive they are killing them. Our enemy is brutal to our soldiers and they laugh at us and our rules. The enemy knows our rules are tying the hands of our soldiers. They have no desire to follow anything put out by the united nations. It was the same in Vietnam and World war II. If we are to succeed we need to put our soldiers on an even playing field. These men should not be in prison for taking out the enemy.

    November 18, 2009 at 5:42 am |
  33. Wolfpack

    No person can imagine what it is like fighting on the streets of Iraq or Afghanistan unless you have been there. Not knowing each day when you drive of the base if you will return. These soldiers were placed in the middle of hell. Expected to patrol a sector between 2 warring factions, the Sunni and Shia.

    The frustration from picking up the pieces of your soldiers after being hit with a road side bombs, rushing soldiers to the CSH after been shot by Snipers and having them die in your hands. 1SG Hatley lost 26 soldiers from combat action.

    What would you do if after being attacked, you find these insurgents with 2 sniper rifles, 8 AK-47 machine guns, 3 RPG's IED bomb making material and a duffle bag of ammunition? Then to be told by the detention center that you dont have enough evidence to hold them. So best thing to do is release them so they have a better chance of killing more American Soldiers the next day.

    I would go into combat with these 3 heroes anyday, anytime, anywhere.

    November 18, 2009 at 3:50 am |
  34. mike ginter

    I was a soldier,not a good one, not a bad one. I was 19 with over a year in Vietnam. I was out of the wire with a buddy. We saw what I believed was a Viet Cong . He was walking along a rice paddy with his son, a 6 or 7 yr old, he had his arm around him. We discussed if we should kill him or not. We decided not to. Try living as a coward the rest of your life, how do you explain your humanity while the people you are with are faced with death from the enemy you could not kill. We are faced with choices in war, Head, Heart, and Duty.

    November 18, 2009 at 3:00 am |
  35. Alex M

    For those in active combat the endpoints are either death or life. Whoever signs up accepts the odds involved. It would either have been the sergeants or these men. Let the sergeants walk for common sense's sake.

    November 18, 2009 at 2:39 am |
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