Marine in Military Court for Iraqi Civilian Killing

Pre-trial hearings in the court-martial case of a Marine accused of kidnapping and killing a civilian in Hamdania revealed some damaging testimony the Marine's lawyer hopes will be barred from the court.

Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins led a Marine squad that is charged with kidnapping and killing a 52-year-old Iraqi civilian last April. Four members of the eight-man squad have accepted plea agreements, and a fifth pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, accessory to murder.

Hutchins has been described by other members of his squad as the mastermind of the plot to kill a military-aged man in the village of Hamdania to send the message that the Marines there were sick of being targeted by roadside bombs.

The squad went after a man suspected of being an insurgent, but when he could not be found, they went next door and dragged Hashim Ibrahim Awad, father of 11 children, from his home and took him to a hole next to a road.

There prosecutors say they shot him, leaving behind a rifle and a shovel to make it look as if he had been planting a bomb.

A government investigator, James Connolly, testified Tuesday that Sgt. Hutchins admitted he "put three rounds in the guy's head."

"I was kind of taken aback," Connolly said.

The four Marines who made plea agreements in exchange for their testimony have received sentences from 18 to 21 months.

The Marine who pleaded guilty to accessory to murder received an eight-year sentence. Yet another squad member in a bizarre twist, Lance Corporal Trent Thomas, also struck a plea agreement but then reversed himself, saying he was merely following Sgt. Hutchins' orders.

The number of plea agreements, followed by relatively light sentences, has raised questions with some observers. Gary Solis, a former Marine judge advocate, teaches at Georgetown University.

"I have no inside line to the Marine Corps prosecutor's shop, but having worked in that shop for years, I know that the cases can come fast and furious at Camp Pendleton," Solis says. "And I'm wondering if the prosecutor's office perhaps was not a bit overwhelmed by the volume of cases. You had the eight from Hamdania and then you have another bunch from Haditha following right on their heels."

The Haditha case is unrelated and involved the death of 24 Iraqi civilians. The legal procedures against some of the Marines involved there have not yet begun, but are expected this summer.

Joseph Low, the lawyer for another man accused in the Hamdania case, recently travelled to the village of Hamdania along with Hutchins' lawyer, Rich Brannan. They were trying to find out more about the dead man, Awad.

"I wanted to go to see if I could do everything I could to get additional evidence to show that the deceased was no poor innocent goat farmer or whatever the new flavor of the day is as to what his past was," Low says, "But that in fact he was someone who was involved in the planting of IEDs and insurgent activity."

Low says he and Brannan were only able to stay in Hamdania for 30 minutes because it is hostile territory, so they were unable to find out much about the dead man.

The U.S. government says Awad was a retired Iraqi police officer with no known insurgent ties.

Lawyers for Hutchins have a formidable task before them as they confront the testimony of other squad members.

Navy Medic Melson Bacos, for example, quoted Hutchins as saying — after Awad was shot — "Congratulations, we just got away with murder, gents."

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