Image: U.S. Marine Sgt. Hutchins III
Mike Blake  /  Reuters file
U.S. Marine Sgt. Lawrence G. Hutchins III, back right, arrives with his attorneys at a hearing at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Oct. 16. Hutchins is charged with murder for his alleged involvement in the death of an Iraqi civilian on April 26, 2006, near Hamdania, Iraq.
updated 11/18/2006 9:26:58 PM ET 2006-11-19T02:26:58

In the beginning, there were eight. A squad of seven Marines and a Navy corpsman charged with kidnapping and murdering an Iraqi man, a crime described by a prosecutor as especially brutal.

They faced military trials; the death penalty was possible.

And now there are four. In the six months the men have been held at the Camp Pendleton brig, the profile of the Hamdania cases has changed dramatically. The death penalty is off the table and four of the defendants have struck plea bargains.

Some observers of the military justice system find the developments mystifying.

Gary Solis, a former Marine Corps prosecutor and judge who teaches law of war at Georgetown University Law Center, said he was surprised by the number of plea agreements in this case.

“It’s a wonderment to me that it’s happening in the military system,” he said.

‘In cold blood’
The group was accused of kidnapping 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Awad in the town of Hamdania, taking him to a roadside hole, shooting him and then trying to cover up the incident. According to court testimony, the troops planned to kidnap and kill a known insurgent, and when they couldn’t get to him, some members of the squad went into Awad’s home.

“They killed a 52-year-old crippled man in cold blood,” Lt. Col. John Baker, a prosecutor, said during a recent hearing. “They killed a retired police officer with 11 children and four grandchildren. Hashim Awad was a very forgiving and gentle man. He was precisely the kind of man (the Marines were) sent to help.”

Despite the prosecution’s argument that the Marine squad was a lawless gang intent on killing, Baker and the military justice system agreed to plea deals resulting in minimal sentences. Judges have listened to testimony and recommended sentences, only to have them trumped by plea bargains. Defense lawyers have said their clients did no wrong, and would be found not guilty at trial.

Lighter sentences
Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Melson J. Bacos, sentenced to 10 years confinement, will serve only one year because of a pretrial agreement. Pfc. John J. Jodka III, recommended for five years confinement and a dishonorable discharge will serve only 18 months and may get a non-punitive discharge under the plea agreement.

Lance Cpl. Tyler Jackson, was sentenced to nine years in prison but his pretrial agreement limits the time he will serve to 21 months. His discharge also will be non-punitive. All three men’s sentences include credit for the six months they’ve already served. Proceedings for another Marine who has made a deal are scheduled in the coming week.

David Glazier, a professor at Loyola University Law School who teaches the law of war, said that with such a large number of defendants, prosecutors may be weighing who may be most at fault.

“They may feel that two or three were the ringleaders and others went along because of peer pressure,” he said.

‘Clearing the decks’
Solis suggested that another pending case could be playing a role. The Marine Corps has been investigating whether a squad deliberately killed as many as 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha last November, and whether efforts were made to cover up the incident. Charges have not been filed — if they are, defendants would likely be prosecuted at Camp Pendleton.

That could strain the military justice system, Solis said.

“I think they’re clearing the decks for the Haditha cases,” he said.

But former Army prosecutor Tom Umberg said he doubted that a lack of resources would be a reason to accept pleas.

“Something as high profile as this, they can free up resources,” said Umberg. “They can activate reservists ... In a case like this, the Marine Corps would find adequate resources to ensure adequate prosecution.”

Even as trials are scheduled for the four defendants who have not yet made deals, further plea bargains are still a possibility.

But Solis said he is confident there will be trials in the case.

“A trial serves many purposes and one is to achieve justice and exact punishment for criminal misconduct,” said Solis. “The accused are well represented. But who speaks for the dead man? Who represents society? That’s the purpose of the trial.”

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