updated 9/3/2004 7:24:34 PM ET 2004-09-03T23:24:34

A Marine reservist was sentenced Friday to 60 days’ hard labor and demoted to the rank of private for abusing Iraqis at a military detention camp last year.

Sgt. Gary Pittman, who apologized for his crimes and asked for a second chance to remain in his beloved Marine Corps, stood stoically as the verdict was read. He left the courtroom without speaking to reporters.

“This was about as light a punishment as they could give,” said Pittman’s civilian defense attorney, John Tranberg. “This was a tremendous outcome.”

The jury of nine Marine officers, which convicted Pittman of assault and dereliction of duty Thursday, deliberated for slightly more than an hour on his sentence. In military court, the jury, not the judge, sentences the defendant.

Prosecutor sought maximum penalty
The military prosecutor, Maj. Leon Francis, asked for the maximum sentence of six months in jail and a bad conduct discharge. The judge, Col. Robert Chester, lowered the maximum sentence from nine months to six months because both charges covered the same actions.

Francis told the jury to send a message about prisoner abuse to U.S. troops in a war zone: “Don’t try it, because the hammer’s going to fall.”

“If Marines think it’s OK to whip up on the helpless and defenseless, what precedent does that set?” Francis said. “The Marine Corps is supposed to be the good guys, not the bad guys.”

Before sentencing, Pittman accepted the court’s findings and apologized for his crimes. He said he was proud to wear his uniform and wanted to remain in the corps.

“There’s two things I love on this earth more than the Marine Corps: That’s my wife, Cheryl, and my daughter,” he said.

Pittman, 40, wiped away tears as he finished his brief statement by asking for another chance.

Pittman’s military defense attorney, Capt. Anders Folk, asked for leniency for Pittman, whom he described as a man dedicated to his family and serving his country. Except for a few years in the 1990s, Pittman has been in either the Marine Corps or the Army since 1983, serving in Panama, Korea, Liberia and Iraq.

Pittman was activated last year and sent to a makeshift detention facility in southern Iraq known as Camp Whitehorse, where he was ordered to guard criminals and prisoners of war.

‘Hostile environment ... dangerous people’
“Sometimes when you’re in a hostile environment and you’re dealing with dangerous people, you make mistakes,” Folk said. “His good service far outweighs, far outweighs what he did.”

During the two-week court-martial, Marines who served at Camp Whitehorse testified that Pittman punched, kneed and kicked Iraqi prisoners wearing sandbags on their heads and handcuffs.

Pittman, who is a federal prison guard in New York in his civilian life, was accused of karate-kicking Nagem Hatab, 52, a suspected Baathist, who later died.

The jury rejected those allegations but convicted Pittman of abusing unidentified Iraqis, none of whom appeared in court.

The court-martial was the first to arise from the death of a prisoner in Iraq.

Defense attorneys called members of Pittman’s family, including his wife and brother, an Army major, to tell the story of a man born in rural South Carolina who joined the Marine Corps after graduating from junior college to better himself.

“People in the community think a whole lot of him,” his older brother Morant Pittman said.

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