IMAGE: Melson Bacos
Denis Poroy  /  AP
Navy medic Melson Bacos, center, is escorted into his court-martial hearing on Friday at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
msnbc.com news services
updated 10/6/2006 10:05:49 PM ET 2006-10-07T02:05:49

A Navy corpsman was sentenced Friday after testifying that Marines in his patrol seized an Iraqi civilian from his home, threw him into a hole and put at least 10 bullets in his head and chest after growing frustrated in their search for an insurgent.

Petty Officer Melson Bacos, 21, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but he will end up serving only a year under a plea deal. Bacos was also dishonorably discharged.

Bacos agreed to a plea deal earlier Friday in which he agreed to testify in exchange for a lesser sentence on kidnapping and conspiracy charges.

A medic, Bacos was charged along with seven Marines in the slaying of Hashim Ibrahim Awad last spring in the town of Hamdania.

“I knew what we were doing was wrong,” Bacos testified, speaking nearly in a whisper. “I tried to say something and then I decided to look away.”

“I was shocked and I felt sick to my stomach,” he added.

Bacos was the first of the servicemen to be court-martialed. The seven others could get up to life in prison.

Prosecutors have said that the servicemen killed Awad out of frustration and then planted an AK-47 assault rifle and a shovel by the body to make it look as if he had been caught digging a hole for a roadside bomb.

The incident was one in a series in which the conduct of American troops in Iraq have damaged America's image worldwide.

Sergeant was 'mad' at release
Bacos testified that the squad entered Hamdania on April 26 while searching for a known insurgent who had been captured three times, then released. Squad leader Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins was “just mad that we kept letting him go and he was a known terrorist,” Bacos said.

The group approached a house where the insurgent was believed to be hiding, but when someone inside woke up, the Marines instead went to another home and grabbed Awad, according to the testimony.

Bacos said the squad had intended to get someone else if they did not capture the insurgent, then stage a firefight to make it appear they had found an Iraqi planting a roadside bomb.

Awad, 52, was taken from the home with his feet and hands bound, then placed in a hole, Bacos said. Bacos said he asked the Marines to let Awad go, but Cpl. Marshall L. Magincalda told him in crude terms that he was being weak and should stop protesting.

Bacos said Hutchins fired three rounds into the man's head after checking to see if he was dead, then Cpl. Trent Thomas fired seven to 10 more rounds into his chest.

Hutchins also called in to a command center and reported the squad had seen a man digging a hole and wanted permission to fire at him, Bacos alleged.

Bacos said he saw Lance Cpl. Robert B. Pennington put the victim’s fingerprints onto an AK-47 and on a shovel to implicate him as an insurgent who had fired first. Bacos was told to fire an AK-47 into the air to simulate the sound of a firefight.

After the killing, Bacos said, he was standing in the road when another Navy corpsman drove by.

“He asked me what happened, and I was very vague,” Bacos testified. “I said, ‘I want you to remember something. We’re different. We’re not like these men.”’

Transferred for safety
Bacos was recently transferred from Camp Pendleton, where the Marines have been held, to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar for his own safety.

Military prosecutors had charged Bacos under the theory that he did nothing to stop the alleged crime. In return for his testimony, murder charges and other counts against him were dropped.

Along with Magincalda, Pennington, Hutchins and Thomas, the other Marines charged are: Lance Cpl. Tyler A. Jackson, Pfc. John J. Jodka, and Lance Cpl. Jerry E. Shumate Jr.

David Brahms, Pennington’s lawyer, said Bacos’ account will be subjected to intense scrutiny. “This is just one guy who is going to tell the story as he sees it,” Brahms said.

“The defense’s job is to climb a mountain,” he added. “With Bacos’ plea, the mountain is slightly higher.” 

Former Army prosecutor Tom Umberg suggested that others might follow Bacos’ lead and strike similar plea bargains.

“You don’t want to be the last guy standing. The first guy gets the best deal,” he said.

Medic's background
A Purple Heart recipient with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, Bacos was the first to admit his role in the Hamdania case. The murder was one in a series of incidents in which the conduct of American troops in Iraq have hurt the country’s image worldwide.

The son of immigrant Philippine parents, Bacos, a former high school varsity wrestler, had hoped to become a doctor and administered first-aid for his platoon.

He enrolled in the Navy after graduating from high school in 2003, was first deployed to Iraq in 2004 and redeployed for a second tour in Iraq this year. In court he wore a Navy summer white service uniform bearing several medals.

Bacos’ wife, who is also a Navy corpsman, attended the hearing at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, as did his father.

Other Camp Pendleton-based Marines are under investigation in a separate incident in November 2005 in which 24 civilians were killed in the Iraqi town of Haditha.

Courts have also convicted a series of low-ranking U.S. soldiers for abusing Iraqis at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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