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No prison time for Army Sgt. Barbera for phone threat against reporter's wife

| Friday, Nov. 21, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
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Five members of an Army Small Kill team from the 5-73 Cavalry out of Fort Bragg, N.C., stated under oath that they witnessed then-Staff Sgt. Michael Barbera kill two unarmed deaf boys in Iraq in 2007.
Staff SGT Michael Barbera, small kill team leader

TACOMA, Wash. — Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Barbera, who professed innocence on his social media sites, pleaded guilty Thursday to threatening the wife of a Tribune-Review reporter in a failed attempt to prevent publication of a report about his fatal shootings in March 2007 of two unarmed, deaf Iraqi brothers.

Barbera, 32, made the plea on his birthday during a special court-martial hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of here. In exchange, the Army dropped an obstruction of justice charge under the terms of a plea bargain.

The Trib published details of the shooting deaths of the Iraqi teens in December 2012 in an eight-page special investigative report, “Rules of Engagement.”

Investigative reporter Carl Prine, who wrote the national award-winning report, tried a number of times to reach Barbera for comment. The threat charge against Barbera involves one of several calls made to Prine's home phone on Oct. 3, 2011. A male caller told Prine's wife, Deanna, that her husband needed to back away from pursuing a story about something that happened in Iraq in 2007.

“For your personal safety, I suggest you tell him he needs to stop working on this story,” she testified the caller told her.

Police traced the call to Barbera's cellphone number.

Col. Andrew Glass, a court-martial judge with the 4th Military Judicial Circuit that includes Lewis-McChord and Alaska, sentenced Barbera to a reprimand and a reduction in rank to staff sergeant — his rank at the time of the Iraqi killings — and ordered him to forfeit $1,000 in pay for 10 months.

Glass ordered no jail time for Barbera, though he could have sentenced him to a maximum of 12 months. However, the plea bargain agreement called for Barbera to get the lesser of either an under-90- day confinement from the court-martial convening authority or the judge's decision.

Barbera hugged his defense team of attorney David Coombs and Capt. Patrick Robinson after the verdict. Coombs smiled as he shook hands with Barbera's parents and girlfriend, who then hugged Barbera.

“They're only giving him a pathetic slap on the wrist. I was stunned they took the dishonorable discharge off the table for the plea,” Deanna Prine said after the sentencing. “Without honor, we're all just animals without conscience. The Army that I thought I knew wouldn't have tolerated Barbera and his ilk for a moment. I'd like to think the military upholds an ethos that we all aspire to, but this whole experience has proven me incorrect. I'm not really sure what to think of the Army anymore.”

Capt. Nicholas Hurd, the lead prosecutor at the hearing, recommended Barbera get a bad conduct discharge, six months in prison and be reduced from E7 sergeant 1st class to E4 specialist.

Hurd said Barbera's call to Deanna Prine was not hasty, as the sergeant suggested, but a “serious calculated threat” because he called four times before reaching her and specifically asked whether she was the reporter's wife.

Hurd noted that Carl Prine is a combat veteran — Marines and Army — and that Barbera's action was a threat against a veteran's wife.

Coombs introduced several documents from Barbera's supporters and testimony of two senior non-commissioned officers from Lewis-McChord's I Corps who praised Barbera for his work.

In addition, Coombs introduced as mitigating evidence the Trib's “Rules of Engagement” article, saying his client was upset over the matter being raised again in a special report he claimed contained several errors.

Among them, Coombs contended that Iraqi birth certificates show the dead brothers were 19 and 17. He also contended that the government made no payments to the family on behalf of the dead boys, as was custom. The mother of the dead youths told the Trib they were 15 and 14 at the time they were killed. She also told the Trib through two interpreters at the scene that the amounts they were paid for the two deaths was a pittance compared to the boys' value on their family farm.

“We believe and defense will argue that the (Trib) article, as baseless as it is, is a form of punishment in and of itself” because it lives on to damage Barbera's name on the Internet, Coombs said.

Coombs said the government's call for a bad conduct discharge and more goes too far in a case where “justice delayed is justice denied.” He argued that if the military had prosecuted Barbera at the time of the threat, he would only face administrative charges instead of an Article 32 hearing on murder and other charges.

In his unsworn statement that could not be cross-examined, Barbera said he was angry over being forced to defend himself again against murder allegations he thought were disposed of in 2009 with local reprimand at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Barbera said Prine contacted him for comment while he was preparing to be deployed to Afghanistan, and the stress and anxiety of knowing the murder allegations would be raised again made him sad, upset and anxious.

“That's when I made the stupid decision to make that phone call, and that's why I'm here today,” Barbera said.

Barbera never apologized in court for threatening Deanna Prine or for the negative impact and publicity his actions brought to the Army.

Deanna Prine and at least one other witness, Ken Katter, a former Army sergeant and member of Barbera's Small Kill Team, have asked prosecutors to seek a no-contact protective order against Barbera for their safety.

Katter testified at Barbera's Article 32 evidentiary hearing in April that when the unit came back from Iraq, Barbera told a soldier he would like to show up at Katter's Michigan home wearing a ski mask and take a baseball bat to him. Another soldier who heard the conversation, Brandon Lankford, told an Army investigator about it.

Lt. Col. Charles Floyd, the investigating officer for that hearing, recommended that Barbera be charged with non-premeditated murder in the shooting death of Ahmed Khalid al-Timmimi, 15, and premeditated murder in the fatal shooting of his brother, Abbas, 14, moments later. The youths were tending to cattle when shot on March 6, 2007, outside As Sadah village, about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad.

At the time, then-Staff Sgt. Barbera was the leader of a Small Kill Team on reconnaissance for terrorists around the village.

The Army in September announced that Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, commanding general of Army I Corps and the Lewis-McChord base and the convening authority for Barbera's general court-martial, decided to dismiss the murder charges “without prejudice,” meaning prosecutors retain the right to refile them.

The dismissal was necessary, officials said, because the unstable situation in Iraq with Islamic State militants makes it impossible for prosecutors and Barbera's defense team to get to As Sadah village to speak with the boys' relatives and others.

Jim Wilhelm is Trib Total Media's investigative editor. Contact him at 412-320-7894 or jwilhelm@tribweb.com.

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