Image: Lawrence Hutchins
Denis Poroy  /  AP file
The court-martial for Marine Corps Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins, of Plymouth, Mass., began Tuesday.
updated 7/24/2007 4:02:30 PM ET 2007-07-24T20:02:30

A court-martial for the alleged ringleader in the kidnapping and execution of an Iraqi civilian began Tuesday with attorneys in the case screening potential jurors.

Sgt. Lawrence G. Hutchins III, 23, the leader of the eight-man squad involved in the death, is charged with murder, kidnapping, conspiracy, assault and other crimes. Hutchins, of Plymouth, Mass., faces a mandatory life sentence if convicted of murder.

Prosecutors say Hutchins’ squad hatched a plot to kidnap and kill a suspected insurgent. But when they were unable to find him, the troops instead kidnapped a neighbor, 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Awad, marched him 1,000 yards from his house and shot him to death in a roadside hole, prosecutors said.

They tried to cover up the killing by planting a shovel and gun near the retired policeman’s body to make it look like he was an insurgent, according to prosecutors.

Hutchins’ attorney, Rich Brannon, said he believes Awad was an insurgent who was killed with the tacit approval of Hutchins’ commanding officers.

“You are always trying to do what you think your superiors want you to do,” Brannon said.

Brannon said all the potential jurors in his client’s case have been deployed on at least one combat tour.

“I think they will have some empathy for my client,” he said. “I don’t think you have a right to judge people until you have been there.”

'The lenses of combat'
The seven Marines and Navy corpsman all were charged with murder. The corpsman and four Marines made plea deals in exchange for their testimony and received sentences ranging from one to eight years in prison.

Last week, Cpl. Trent Thomas was acquitted of premeditated murder but convicted of murder conspiracy and kidnapping; he was reduced in rank to private and given a bad-conduct discharge but received no prison time.

The other remaining defendant is Cpl. Marshall Magincalda, whose court-martial began Monday.

Thomas’ attorney, Victor Kelley, said his client was helped by having a jury of his peers, all of whom had served tours of duty in Iraq.

“It was good to filter (the case) through the lenses of combat,” Kelley said.

'What seemed ... right'
Terry Pennington, whose son, Lance Cpl. Robert Pennington, received the stiffest sentence, said lawyers in January advised him against risking a court-martial because many potential jurors at that time were not combat vets.

“He did at the time what seemed to be the right thing,” said the elder Pennington, adding he would appeal for his son’s early release in light of Thomas’ murder acquittal.

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