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. Alexander

    Sad, but I agree with the 1st Sgt. our gov has placed so many restrictions on us, it's hard to defend yourself out here in Iraq, yes I'm still here in Iraq. Honestly, you have to see the face of death before u defend urself, or otherwise u face trials like this heroes. Insurgents can shoot you, and you still have to wait for others to defend urself, I undertand we are Americans, but that's why we've lost so many...

    November 18, 2009 at 2:38 am |
  2. Robert, Alabama

    There is absolutely nothing that lessens the gravity of their crimes. In fact, the national humiliation it has brought, and the number of terrorist recruits that will result from this, makes their crimes much worse than a normal civilian murder.

    Their actions will be result in the deaths of many more Americans. Their bullets will kill more Americans than their Iraqi victims ever could have.

    November 18, 2009 at 2:33 am |
  3. John Smith

    Those soldiers should not have been held for murder. The enemy is "Murdering" Americans and they end up back out on the street killing more? How can you put these soldiers away in jail? Your going to find a future where no soldier is going to bother fighting for "America" when all it does is throw the boot at them. It's a tragic shame how these soldiers get treated...

    November 18, 2009 at 2:24 am |
  4. Jewels

    I wish the president would bring our men home. These men risk there lives everyday to fight for a bunch of "educated fools" that want to refer to text book policy of how a real soldier is suppose to react when he is a "real hell". I sincerely thank and appreciate everything they do for me so that I may continue to have my freedom. I have a enough sense to know this freedom that I enjoy comes at a "great cost". These soldiers had to make a difficult choice that has saved the lives of other americans or even their own.
    These soldiers are trying to make it back home to their loved ones by any means necessary.

    November 18, 2009 at 2:18 am |
  5. Walter Taylor

    I am a former Army SGT with 2 combat deployments. NO ONE will ever understand the hardships soldiers endure unless they put on the uniform and deploy themselves. No one knows how it feels to lose a friend and KNOW the MURDERER will never be captured or tried. I understand why these soldiers did what they did and I stand behind my brothers. The 1SG was right. I've never seen detainees released, but I did watch my BC apologize to the local nationals for detaining there females. A team detained individuals based on military equipment and IED building materials found in a home. The home was spotlighted after an attack on our FOB. The home had both male and females present. Everyone was detained, but because the team detained females; the local nationals got upset and even though the orders from the CC were to detain everyone, the BC spat in the faces of the soldiers doing there duty by apologizing to the LN. How do you fight someone you cant see? The best way you know how. The Govt. needs to take the damn leash off the dogs and let those soldiers do what they were trained to do or bring them home.

    November 18, 2009 at 2:10 am |
  6. Ronald

    The ranking NCO knew what he was doing, it makes you think how many other times this has happen before. Raising this news story to national status could proof very bad for our troops fighting in the middle east. When you (CNN) try to keep bringing big news items for ratings you put our troops serving in the middle east in greater danger. Come on AC360 think about the fallout of your stories. I'm a Vet.

    November 18, 2009 at 2:09 am |
  7. Joey

    I had the chance to Serve with First Sergeant Hatley, SSG Joseph Mayo, and Doc Leahy, These men Are heroes. Period, no questions asked. After losing 6 guys in our company, these men still did their jobs. God rest their Souls. They will never be forgotten. 1SG Hatley has the ability to Lead, Motivate, and Train his soldiers in the hardest of times. For somebody to Criticize him and the other two when they have not had the PRIVILEGE to serve with him is wrong. What these men did was what nobody else has the nerve to do even though every grunt contemplates this during his deployment. If you don't know John, just know that no matter who you were, from E1 to E7 HE knew something about you within ten minutes of knowing you. Your First and last name where you were from and what you liked to do for fun as a few examples. I support everything these men did. They are not war criminals.

    November 18, 2009 at 1:44 am |
  8. Izaac

    A war crime is a war crime! There will always be reasoning and justifications for why it was done, but that doesn't mean it is not a war crime. We will always have sympathy for our troops, but other nations will have sympathy for their own troops, and they will find justification for whatever they did. What makes the United States grate is ... "A war crime is a war crime".

    November 18, 2009 at 1:42 am |
  9. Rev. Joseph Terrell

    I served in the Vietnam war from 1967 to 1969. I can understand the killing when your friends around you are being killed. I think the sentences were wrong. Should have been shorter.

    November 18, 2009 at 1:41 am |
  10. EDUB

    Battlefield justice is right. If the bodies weren't found then the evidence is less than the sentence warrants. Lack of evidence is why over 70k prisoners were released.

    Discipline isn't easy.

    I can't say I wouldn't do the same thing.

    God Bless Our Troops.

    November 18, 2009 at 1:28 am |
  11. Larry

    I am a soldier and I have been in the same situation that former 1SG Hatley has as have thousands of other soldiers; they did not take the same actions that Hatley did and we are a better Army for it. You cannot take the law into your own hands, no matter if was with the "best intentions". Yes it is frustrating and can feel like you are spinning your wheels but we live by a higher code than our enemies; killing because we think they are guilty is wrong and only serves to strengthen the resolve of the insurgents here.

    November 18, 2009 at 1:19 am |
  12. Ralph Miller

    Mr. Cooper,

    I've served with John Hatley, and I am here to tell you John, was the most professional Non Commissioned Office that I have ever had the privilege to serve with. I don't condone what John did but, I sure can understand it. I can understand because, I seen insurgents released because of a lack paperwork . These are the same Insurgents that not only target US Soldiers but, indiscriminately kill their own people (men, Women, and children) only because of a slight difference in religion.

    Bob from Pittsburgh, have you ever served in either of the two conflicts, I would guess not. Soldiers in a Squad, Platoon, Company are family, the First Sergeant is like their mother, who feeds and takes care of them. Could you imagine what John Hatley was feeling when he lost over 10 of his kids, and their killers were released over technicality. American Soldiers are not killers, we train to defend each other and our counties way of life, when it comes time to execute this training, we do it decisively and with great effect.

    John in our world you will always be a respected Warrior, Leader, Friend. GOD BLESS!!


    November 18, 2009 at 12:39 am |
  13. Jim from Pembroke Pines

    Battlefield justice is as old as time itself. Our men in arms have never ever been subjected to constant redeployments to a war zone as required of our present Armed Forces. Short timers do not exist in todays military. Men in battle have no one to rely on but themselves, they look out for each other and they take care of business. Some can handle it and some can't. I am not saying it was right, but we have no right to judge them. These men should not be locked up, but rather rewarded for their mission, devotion and transfered to non combat duties.

    November 18, 2009 at 12:08 am |
  14. Ed

    Im a Army Veteran, i just came back from Afghanistan in June of this year, what i don't understand is that the taliban do not follow The Geneva Convention so why should we? I consider this man heroes and will follow any of them into war any day. The Geneva Convention should only be applied to convetional warfare with countries that have real armys following the same rules, not terrorist. We are becoming soft and this is the reason why so many of our men are dying. What has happend to us as AMERICAN'S?Do you really consider your self a patriot? Have we forgotten 9/11 so soon?We should be ashame!! Did they have mercy for all the people and children they killed? Why should we!!!!!!! We need to wake and stop worring about what the world thinks about America, after all we are the strongest country in the world for a reason, don't let other drag us down and let's do our job and teach our enemys to fear us one's again.

    November 17, 2009 at 11:48 pm |
  15. PettyOfficer Mendoza

    These Soldiers should be given medals and be Honored for what they have done.We fight an enemy that has no uniform and has no rights under the Geneva Convention. They are enemy insurgents that were found with sniper rifles, Ak 47 and other deadly weapons that were used or were in planning to be use to kill U.S. Troops! These Soldiers did their Jobs with integrity.I would of done the same thing! We are a band of brothers all for one and one for all. It is said to see these Soldiers in prison when they have fought for freedom and democracy against all enemies foreign and domestic.I hope they will be released and reinstated. If you have not been in the combat zone, you do not know what the hell these Soldiers and Marines, Sailors and Airmen go through. God Bless the U.S. Armed Forces!

    November 17, 2009 at 11:39 pm |
  16. kenneth

    they do not have to kill them.how about if they are american?.
    they should have turn them in.

    November 17, 2009 at 11:30 pm |
  17. Tressy

    I think it's a crime that these soldiers have been imprisoned. Who are we to say anything about what was done. They came across insurgents, and they did what they are trained to do. What they did probably saved the lives of countless soldiers, does that not count for anything. I think as civilians we need to let our soldiers take care of the business they are there to do. If the tables were turned, would the 4 thugs have shown any American soldier mercy?

    November 17, 2009 at 11:25 pm |
  18. Justin Jones

    I served with these men in Aco 1/18. Again I'll state that they are heroes! I second what Hatley said about spending the time and money on iraqi detainees instead of prosecuting our American heroes! Release these men! Then throw them a parade in appreciation!

    November 17, 2009 at 11:21 pm |
  19. Delsy

    I'm iraqi .. and i want those guys to be punshed..this is justice .......

    November 17, 2009 at 11:21 pm |
  20. Ramses Byron MN

    I support you
    1sgt hatley you have my 100% support. You should not be in prison. Your driver in OIF II 04-05. We survived a near ambush together. had it not been for your guidance I would not be here today. To anyone who has not served in our armed forces in combat and yet criticize/demonize actions of those in it just remember. If not for us you would not be able to say they hateful and disrespectful things you do. Secondly I challenge you to serve in a combat zone not as a photographer or some support M.O.S but as and infantrymen. On the ground being the tip of the spear head defending freedom

    November 17, 2009 at 11:11 pm |
  21. Doug D

    Our country's freedom has been secured over many years by soldiers with the courage and commitment of Sgt Hatley and his team. His statement that our country's decisionmakers placed more effort and resources to prosecute our own while recycling the enemy is disturbing and disappointing – yet seemingly true.

    November 17, 2009 at 10:47 pm |
  22. hakeem

    and by the way i really thank the CNN for showing the true. you rock CNN

    November 17, 2009 at 10:47 pm |
  23. Eli

    If it is true that these Iraqis would have been right back on the streets trying to kill our soldiers, then their decision to murder these folks was completely justified and understandable. Every day they place their lives at risk, and to have those who have already tried to kill them once given the opportunity to try again is ridiculous. If it was our lives at risk we would be a little slower to judge. After the first time they dropped off some Iraqis who had tried to kill them and then found them on the streets shooting at them again a few days later, they probably decided that war is us or them... I would vote for them. You know, fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on you.

    It is really too bad that the military has seen it fitting to take 40 years of their lives for this, especially since there really is no other logical way to deal with it if I were in their shoes. The only problem with that thought process is that it would open the doors for any American soldier to kill any Iraqi or other enemy for any reason at any time without consequence. Not a good message to send to our troops.

    What can you do? I think fix the problems with the detention centers, make it clear that this behavior will not be tolerated, and ease the sentence on these soldiers who had no other options unless they wanted to die.

    November 17, 2009 at 10:46 pm |
  24. SCOTT B

    These 3 men are my HEROS!! I Can go to sleep tonight and wake up and go to work tomorrow knowing there are less terrorists in this world staring down a scope at one of our service men providing my freedom.Less terrorist to plot on how they can destroy America. I thank these men for doing their jobs! War is kill or be killed, that is why it is fought with deadly weapons not pillows or words! I and you should ALL call for these mens immediate release!

    November 17, 2009 at 10:39 pm |
  25. Jonie Hamilton

    What evidence do they want or need when we are at WAR? I believe 40 years is way too much for anyone under that kind of pressure to save his/her country and be so far away from their loved ones for so long. Maybe they were just trying to do the right thing, protect US and themselves. Their families must be devistated. I feel for them.

    November 17, 2009 at 10:36 pm |
  26. jmmc

    As a Vietnam Vet I found Scott Peck's book, "People of the Lie" instructive.

    November 17, 2009 at 10:30 pm |
  27. hakeem

    i served in afghanstan 3 years and 2 in iraq. it was like hill but we always have followed the rules. you cant kill anyone who has no control when u have all the power over them.

    November 17, 2009 at 10:26 pm |
  28. Catherine

    Murder is murder, no matter who does it. Yes, the Iraqi men might have been, and I emphasis the phrase might have been, planning to kill Americans, but that is no excuse for their murder. The soldiers should have taken the men to a detention centers, where they would have been treated as prisoners of war. They violated military laws. They are new Steven Greens. If American soldiers continue to kill Iraqis without reason, there will be anger, more incentive to become a terrorist, and the violent cycle will continue.

    November 17, 2009 at 10:25 pm |
  29. Brent Trinidad

    This has got to be pretty close to being absurd that these men find themselves in trouble for this. Tell me what is the difference between killing the men in a fire fight and killing them after. I'll tell you what it is. Its luck

    November 17, 2009 at 10:24 pm |
  30. Colleen

    My son has served 2 tours in Iraq . . . . these guys should not be in prison . . . .they are correct . . . those Iraqis would have been returned to the streets and would have killed more of our boys!!

    November 17, 2009 at 10:23 pm |
  31. Linford

    America is a land of freedom, freedom within the law. We understand the frustration of our men and its attendant deaths as a result of the loop holes in some of our laws. However, the law is law no matter the loop holes and it must be observed by all especially soldiers who are trained to take orders. It is up to the top men to do something about the 'ROEs' in the interest of our galant men and women. God bless our soldiers, God bless America.

    November 17, 2009 at 10:23 pm |
  32. Tyler Bond

    I agree with dale above; These men were simply doing their job. They were in a war zone, and therefore it is acceptable that they make acts of war! If our government were to focus less on prosecuting our own soldiers' crimes and more on rooting out and annihilating the enemy stronghold, we would most likely advance at a much faster rate in this rapidly deteriorating war. Had the men that were killed been given some warning, they would have most likely made some use of their weapons cache, and been slain anyway. It is a pity that as a country we are no longer able to prioritize, even when it means death to our countrymen in some cases.

    November 17, 2009 at 9:24 pm |
  33. Marcel

    Whatever Sgt. Hatley's fustration with detainee policy was does not excuse or justify his actions. He was there to follow orders, not act as judge, jury or executioner. The Army has a good track record for zero tolerence of this kind of behavior, unfortunately, worse war crimes have gone unpunished because of corrupt politicians.

    November 17, 2009 at 7:52 pm |
  34. Scott D Harding

    I feel these guys fustration. Maybe we need to to a "180" on OUR rules of engagement. They terrorists only play by one rule: kill as many Americans as possible. There is no pity, no shame and no regard for what we call "Due Process". Maybe if we played by their rules for awhile, we wouldn't keep seeing the same insurgants over and over and over... And yes, I am an Honorably Discharged Retired Veteran of our countrys fine military.

    November 17, 2009 at 7:32 pm |
  35. A. Smith, Oregon

    It seems these Army soldiers are Scape Goats for show casing the new Army image that is being spun since Maj. Hasan's murderous outrage played out under the nose of Lt. Gen. Robert Cone.

    Army suicides are at a all time high, countless veterans state they have PTS and that the Army is refusing to treat them nor properly allow those veterans to obtain badly needed medication.

    November 17, 2009 at 6:46 pm |
  36. Soldier.

    I agree with the Monday Morning Quarterback comment, and having served in the military and done my time downrange I can echo the sentiments about being frustrated. If you've never worn the boots and walked our walk in them then I find it amusing that you can pass judgment.

    Speaking of judgment – this man was judged by a military tribunal and found to be guilty. What he did was wrong, and the reason why we are not fighting the way the enemy fights is because that would make us no better than they are. Does it cost us? Yes. But every single one of us who puts on that uniform from day to day knows, understands, and accepts that risk.

    While part of me wants to agree with the First Sergeant's actions, the other part of me cannot condone going rogue. But he made a decision and he stuck to it. And he believes that what he did was right. I cannot personally agree with him but I understand his motivation and I do not condemn him for it. Having been in his boots I know what he has to live with.

    November 17, 2009 at 6:33 pm |
  37. God help us all...S Callahan

    Scott ...so glad you are taking on this article. I just can't stomach what is happening to our solilders who are acting in the best interest of America..and in his case, also for the Iraq citizens that are good and honorable. Sometimes you just sit back and question how did justice and it's meaning get so distorted.

    He will be all right...and I"m sure he does feel freer now in prison than he did in Iraq....but sadly he has not had justice on this land....his hope lies in justice from above, it really the only thread linking him right now.

    November 17, 2009 at 5:33 pm |
  38. steve clemmons

    our military needs our support. if we would allow our troops to do their job and stop backseat driving, we would see some real progress in these wars. people that have never been in battle cannot tell someone who is, how to do it. There is a reason the expression "War is Hell"exists. If we don't have the stomach to allow the troops to do what they must, bring them home.

    November 17, 2009 at 4:58 pm |

    Killing war prisoners for whatever motive,, is a war crime, and should be punish.. the army is doing the right thing in prosecuting these people.

    Doing the right thing is what differentiate us from savages.

    November 17, 2009 at 4:52 pm |
  40. Charmaine

    What is the point of being over there if not to kill before being killed? Why are good men being punished for trying to keep themselves and other soliders safe? Do you think that if the government of the "murdered" had the roles reversed, that they would have prosecuted and thrown the american killers in jail? Why, heck no, they would probably get a medal... I just don't understand... had I been on the jury or in any situation to try these guys, I would have simply turned my head...

    November 17, 2009 at 4:45 pm |
  41. Hiram

    Unless you have served in combat and know the "enemy" you will never understand what we go through every day in Iraq and Afghanistan; and its those people "policy makers" that sit behind desks and think they know what is right and make up these infamous "ROEs" they have no clue. I really find it odd that our government has allocated so much resource and time to prosecuting these men, for "war crimes" and our boys are being murdered daily out in Iraq and Afghanistan. Didnt see our government bat and eye when we had 3 soldiers from 10th mountain get captured,tortured and then murdered by enemy combatants. It always amazes me where our priorities lie, oh I forgot were above taking the law into our own hands. But our goverment is not.

    November 17, 2009 at 4:22 pm |
  42. Bruno N.

    The great unknown is how many lives were saved or spared injury by eliminating these detainees who were found with weapons? This is war were the enemy hide amongst civilians and look to inflict as much damage as possible! What's CNN's motive, to seek an understanding of the stress of battle or inflame negativism towards our military. I feel sadness and empathy for these soldiers.......40 years?

    November 17, 2009 at 4:13 pm |
  43. Airborne

    My heart goes out to these men. I served with SFC Mayo for about 3 years in the 82nd. It hurts to see a guy of his caliber make an unethical decision.

    The Monday morning quarterbacks and some media will always have something to say about morality, ethics, laws, etc. But, in the end, you never know how you will react to a certain situation. The majority of people who'll post a comment here haven't lived in fear of their lives day in and day out like these men have. Trust me, it takes a toll on you leaving a FOB thinking this will be the day you'll die.

    In no way am I saying what they did was acceptable. IT WAS WRONG. But, before we start to throw stones at these guys, take a hard look at yourself and the decisions you've made in life. I know none of us are perfect! I pray that Joe finds peace and forgiveness in jail. Trust me, he was a good friend, dad, and husband. I wish you hadn't done what you did, buddy.

    November 17, 2009 at 2:58 pm |
  44. Melinda

    People are kidding themselves if they think this kind of thing didn't happen in our so-called "honorable" wars like WWII etc. No one ever speaks of this, but it happened.

    I'm a liberal who's against the war, but even I can see where he has brought up irrefutable points. You don't start a war, and then drop the ball on your soldiers!! If they don't have the guts to arrest the enemy–then why the heck are we still there? What he did was pretty terrible, but I do feel the military brass is more to blame.

    Damm shame, across the board. Waste of decent human life, on both sides.

    November 17, 2009 at 2:34 pm |
  45. marc

    I can see the reason behind their actions. They found them with weapons. Then with the stress and pressure and the thought that they would be back on the streets killing Americans in a couple days. I think none of us can say we would do differently and can judge their actions unless we have been in that situation but i believe unless you have been in the military you can not judge them for what they did. As Hatley said himself, "We've repeatedly found ourselves fighting the same enemy again and again." Any soldier misses and wants to be with his family. They want this to end and when it doesn't I'm sure they will get frustrated and take matters into there own hands. I respect all of our military and hope the best for them.

    November 17, 2009 at 11:56 am |
  46. Tim Gibson

    True, our military are trained to kill, yet there are rules of engagement that must be followed just as our civilian police must follow.

    The mentality of a "rogue" police officer, or an "isolated group" in either our police or our armed services cannot be dismissed or accepted in any fashion that would label such behavior as that of a hero.

    We either have excuses, or we have responsibility.

    November 17, 2009 at 11:28 am |
  47. dale fessler

    these men deserve medals not prison. shame on our govt. for sending these men to prison. these men had a thankless job and did their best after being shot at and attacked day after day.

    November 17, 2009 at 11:27 am |
  48. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    I'm sure if these men and women at war would never commit any crimes. They aren't born to kill, they are trained to kill. God Bless them.

    November 17, 2009 at 10:56 am |
  49. Emanuelle Marie

    Disturbing letter – I can't even begin to understand the day to day pressure of being in a war zone. I can only presume that the constant danger begins to affect reasoning and reactions. I love and respect the military for all they've been doing for us (my father is a WW2 vet and I have several family members in this particular conflict) but even then, the rules still apply. Soldiers are taught to kill as part of the defense of the country, it is designed as part of a campaign, a strategy to weaken the enemy. This is why they're also taught to take orders or in defense of themselves and their colleagues when they perceive an immediate threat. Murdering a group of people who don't have any weapons, despite the perceived threat, is murder. I don't get to kill a rapist/child murderer in the street just because the system keeps failing to punish them. We watch them and try to get them with facts. We're Americans. We have these protections. And supposedly, that's what we take with us everywhere we go. Our soldiers are our ambassadors as well as our protection. That's why it's such a difficult and honored job. What he did is not only a breach of our trust as Americans, it's also a breach of trust of his fellow soldiers – those who fight the good fight and have to head into the fray daily, hoping that the people they encounter trust and believe in the honor of their uniforms. Their survivial often depends on that belief.

    November 17, 2009 at 10:20 am |
  50. Leah

    How sad is that? I suppose there is truth to the saying that there is no reality, only perception.

    November 17, 2009 at 10:14 am |
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