KRISTIN M. HALL

Associated Press Writer

PADUCAH, Ky. (AP) There's no question ex-soldier Steven Dale Green raped and killed a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and murdered her parents and sister.

Still, jurors in Kentucky couldn't agree this week whether to sentence the 24-year-old to death for heinous crimes he committed while serving in Iraq, indecision that may signal growing public awareness of combat stress and its consequences, experts say.

Jurors declined to talk to reporters, but forms they completed during deliberations indicate some factored in the stress of Green's bloody combat tour, poor mental health treatment in Iraq and weak leadership in his unit.

Green, who faces life in prison because jurors couldn't agree on the death penalty, was tried in civilian court because the Army had granted him an early discharge before he was arrested for the 2006 killings. Several fellow soldiers were also involved but were tried in military court.

"I think there's some hesitancy about executing people knowing how much we know now about post-traumatic stress disorder and the effects of being surrounded by violence," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "I tend to think that people see the experience of war not as an excuse, not as grounds for an acquittal, but perhaps a mitigating factor, that this is someone who in a different environment would not have acted this way."

The killings by Green and a recent mass shooting by a U.S. soldier at a combat stress clinic in Baghdad emphasize the challenge the military faces as it tries to identify and treat stress disorders, according to veterans and other military experts.

"The problems of combat stress are an issue that needs daily focus and attention for soldiers who are deployed," said Anita Gorecki, a former military attorney who currently defends soldiers through her firm in Fayetteville, N.C. "We're not looking at these people and these cases in a vacuum and apparently the jury in this case took that into consideration."

In March 2006, after an afternoon of card playing, sex talk and drinking Iraqi whiskey, Green and three other soldiers went to the home of 14-year-old Abeer Qassim al-Janabi near Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad. Green shot and killed the teen's mother, father and sister, then became the third soldier to rape her before shooting her in the face. Her body was set on fire.

His attorneys never denied his involvement, instead focusing on building a case that he didn't deserve the death penalty. Former Marines and other soldiers who served with Green, of Midland, Texas, testified that he faced an unusually stressful combat tour in Iraq's "Triangle of Death" with a unit that suffered heavy casualties and didn't have sufficient leadership.

But some veterans say that's no excuse, no matter what Green went through.

"Many of us experienced combat stress, but Steven Green was the only one who killed a family and raped a girl," said Capt. Brandon Friedman, who like Green served in the 101st Airborne Division during the early years of the war and is currently in the reserve.

The combat stress defense also rang hollow to Iraqis who were shocked and disappointed that Green was not condemned to die. The federal jurors who had convicted him of rape and murder deliberated 10 hours over two days but couldn't agree on a sentence.

"Has Iraqi blood and honor become so cheap, where a family can be murdered and a daughter raped and killed, and the verdict is life imprisonment?" said Tariq Dawood, 55, who lives in Baghdad.

Haidar Kadom, 31, a teacher there, called the sentence "a mockery of Iraqi rights."

"If an Iraqi did the same to an American female soldier, he would be regarded as a terrorist and would be sentenced to death," he said.

Combat stress is not unique to current wars, but veterans say the public is now more aware of the mental toll it exacts.

"There was less of an understanding back then," Vietnam War veteran Herman Campbell, 60, of Jackson, Ky., said Friday. "Now, everyone comes back a hero. Back in the Vietnam days, everybody who came back was kind of shunned. They talked bad to you when you got off the plane. Nobody respected you. They just didn't care much for soldiers."

The jury forms showed that members also debated whether the Army deserved some of the responsibility for failing to recognize that Green could act on homicidal thoughts of killing Iraqi civilians.

Green's attorneys said in a statement after the sentencing that if the military ignores the effects of combat stress among soldiers, "we are certain a tragedy like this will occur again in the future."

Facing spikes this year in the number of soldier suicides, the military is seeking new answers to treat the estimated one-fifth of military members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and now have symptoms of anxiety, depression and other emotional problems.

This week, the Defense Department announced a new campaign featuring the stories of soldiers who are getting mental health treatment to show that seeking help is not a career-ending move.

Gorecki, the former military attorney, said increased awareness of combat stress has led to greater scrutiny of the military as a whole and less blame for individual soldiers who commit crimes.

"I don't feel like the public is blaming soldiers as a category," Gorecki said. "They are looking to big institutions, like the department of defense, and want to make sure the institutions are providing the help to the soldiers in order to prevent such things from happening."

Associated Press Writers Hamid Ahmed in Baghdad and Jeffrey McMurray in Lexington contributed to this story.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.