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Lawyers for a U.S. Marine sergeant will be back in a military courtroom today at Camp Pendleton in California. Sergeant Lawrence Hutchins led a squad that is charged with kidnapping and killing a 52-year-old Iraqi man last April. As Hutchins approaches court-martial, his lawyers are suggesting the shooting may have been justified because the victim was no innocent civilian.

NPR's John McChesney reports.

JOHN MCCHESNEY: Sergeant 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 a 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 couldn't 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'd been planting a bomb.

Yesterday, a government investigator, James Connolly, testified that Sergeant Hutchins told him he put three rounds in a guy's head. Connolly said, I was kind of taken aback. Four members of the eight-man squad have accepted plea agreements in exchange for their testimony. Their sentences have ranged from 18 to 21 months. A fifth pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of accessory to murder and received a sentence of eight years.

And in a bizarre twist, yet another squad member, Lance Corporal Trent Thomas also struck a plea agreement but then reversed himself saying he was merely following Sergeant 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.

Mr. GARY SOLIS (Former Marine Judge Advocate; Professor, Georgetown University): I'm wondering if perhaps the prosecutor's office was not a bit overwhelmed by the volume of cases. You have the eight from Hamdania, and then you have another bunch from Haditha following right on their heels.

MCCHESNEY: The Haditha case is unrelated and involved the death of 24 Iraqi civilians. Pre-trial hearings for marines charged in those killings are expected to begin next month. Joseph Low is the lawyer for yet another accused in the Hamdania case, Corporal Marshall Magincalda. Low recently traveled to the village of Hamdania along with Hutchins' lawyer Rich Brannon. They were trying to find out more about the dead man - Awad.

Mr. JOSEPH LOW (Counsel for Corporal Marshall Magincalda): I wanted to go and see if I could do everything I could to get additional evidence to show that the deceased was no poor innocent goat farmer - whatever the new flavor of the day as to what his past was - but that the fact he was someone who was involved in the planting IEDs and insurgent activity.

MCCHESNEY: Low says he and Brannon were only able to stay in Hamdania for about 30 minutes because it's hostile territory so they weren't able 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.

John McChesney, NPR News.

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