updated 11/14/2006 6:58:47 PM ET 2006-11-14T23:58:47

A Marine charged with kidnapping and murdering an Iraqi civilian pleaded not guilty Tuesday in his first court appearance.

Cpl. Trent Thomas belonged to a squad of seven Marines and a Navy corpsman who were accused of abducting the 52-year-old man, shooting him at a roadside hole and trying to cover up the killing.

Thomas is charged with kidnap, murder, conspiracy, making a false official statement, larceny and housebreaking in the April 26 death of Hashim Ibrahim Awad in Hamdania, west of Baghdad.

Thomas, 24, from the St. Louis area, was on his second combat tour in Iraq. He could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted at his trial, which was set for March 12.

Two Marines and the corpsman pleaded guilty to reduced charges and agreed to testify about the killing in return for the dropping of other charges. The two Marines are to be sentenced later this week.

A fourth member of the squad has made a similar deal and is due in court next week.

Some of the testimony has singled out Thomas' actions the night of April 26. The Navy medic, Petty Officer 3rd Class Melson Bacos, testified Thomas fired several rounds into Awad's chest. Bacos pleaded guilty to kidnapping and conspiracy and was ordered jailed for a year.

Victor Kelley, Thomas' civilian attorney, said his client would be acquitted but acknowledged the testimony makes it harder to defend him.

Thomas also is charged with assault in a separate incident involving a different individual that was uncovered during the investigation of Awad's death.

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