updated 8/4/2006 11:39:31 AM ET 2006-08-04T15:39:31

A military prosecutor urged Friday that four U.S. soldiers be court-martialed for allegedly murdering Iraqi detainees, calling them war criminals. A defense lawyer said the Iraqis got “what they deserved.”

“When these soldiers killed these detainees, they committed murder,” Capt. Joseph Mackey, the prosecutor, said in his closing arguments at a hearing to determine if the four should face a court-martial — and a possible death sentence.

Pfc. Corey R. Clagett, Spc. William B. Hunsaker, Staff Sgt. Raymond L. Girouard and Spc. Juston R. Graber are accused of murder in the killing of three Iraqi men taken from a house May 9 on a marshy island outside Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad.

The soldiers, all from the 101st Airborne Division’s 187th Infantry Regiment, declined to testify at the hearing, relying instead on statements they made to military investigators.

They say the detainees, who were blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs with plastic straps, were killed while trying to escape. Military prosecutors said the Iraqis were deliberately freed and encouraged to flee before being shot as part of a premeditated plan.

Paul Bergrin, Clagett’s civilian attorney, said in his closing arguments that the defendants’ claim was perfectly plausible.

“These detainees were able to break the flexcuffs, they had a knife and they were able to break free,” he said. “They attacked, they spun around and they got exactly what they deserved.”

One witness testified the men were shot while running blindfolded.

String of alleged abuses
The case is one in a string of alleged abuses that have raised questions about U.S. military operations in Iraq and dealt another blow to the reputation of American soldiers, fueling anger against the international coalition’s presence.

Six U.S. Marines were charged this week with assaulting civilians in the village of Hamdania in April. Three of the men were already being held on murder charges in the death of a 52-year-old Iraqi. Military officials said Thursday the assaults were uncovered during an investigation into the slaying.

“U.S. soldiers must follow the laws of war. That’s what makes us better than the terrorists,” Mackey said. “These soldiers did just the opposite. They cut them (the three detainees) loose and murdered them in cold blood.”

“For this, they are not war heroes, they are war criminals. And justice states that they face trial,” Mackey said.

“Take a look at how they did it: They cut all three of the detainees loose at one time. These detainees were standing; they cut them free” before shooting them, the prosecutor said.

Mackey cited the testimony of Pfc. Bradley Mason, who told the hearing this week that the soldiers in his unit finalized the plan to kill the detainees during the mission.

Hunsaker, Clagett and Girouard also are accused of obstruction of justice for allegedly threatening to kill Mason.

Mackey also referred to the questionable nature of Hunsaker’s wounds, including cuts that the soldier claimed were suffered while grappling with the three Iraqi prisoners before they fled. The squad medic testified the wounds were tiny enough to have been scratches from a paper clip.

Defense: Prosecution has no evidence
Bergrin, the defense lawyer, said the prosecution presented no physical or forensic evidence to prove the killings were not in self-defense.

He dismissed Mason’s testimony as untrustworthy. “This case rises and this case falls on the testimony of Pfc. Mason,” he said, referring to the conflicting statements the soldier made in his two sworn statements.

Bergrin called Mason “a deliberate and intentional liar,” and described his client, Clagett, as “a 22-year-old immature boy” who was deeply hurt to have taken a life.

“He doesn’t have the character or the integrity to carry out these types of actions,” Bergrin said.

The hearing’s investigating officer, Lt. Col. James Daniel, will deliver a recommendation on whether a court-martial is warranted to the 101st Airborne’s commanding general.

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