Marine again on trial for Iraq slay­ing

The 2007 con­vic­tion of Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins has twice been over­turned.

Los Angeles Times - - LOS ANGELES - By Tony Perry tony.perry@la­times.com

A re­trial is set to begin Mon­day at Camp Pendle­ton for a Marine con­victed in the 2006 killing of an Iraqi civil­ian — one of the high­est-pro­file and legally and po­lit­i­cally com­plex court mar­tials of the Iraq war.

Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins was con­victed in 2007 by a Marine jury of un­premed­i­tated mur­der in the killing of a 52-year-old for­mer Iraqi po­lice of­fi­cer in Ha­mandiya, west of Bagh­dad.

The killing was meant as a warn­ing to Iraqis to stop plant­ing road­side bombs and co­op­er­at­ing with in­sur­gent snipers at­tack­ing U.S. troops.

Six other Marines and a Navy corps­man also were con­victed in what was called the Pendle­ton 8 case. As the squad leader, Hutchins got the long­est sen­tence, 15 years, which was later re­duced to 11.

Ap­peals courts twice have over­turned Hutchins’ con­vic­tion: once on grounds that pros­e­cu­tors had il­le­gally ob­tained a con­fes­sion, and once be­cause his lawyer was al­lowed to re­tire on the eve of trial. The Marine Corps has opted for a re­trial.

Hutchins has spent more than six years be­hind bars, first at the fed­eral pri­son at Ft. Leav­en­worth, Kan., and then the brig at Mi­ra­mar Marine Corps Air Sta­tion in San Diego. Since mid-2013, he has been free on ap­peal, re­stored to his rank of sergeant and as­signed to Camp Pendle­ton, living with his wife and chil­dren.

The legal case has pro­voked strong, con­trast­ing opin­ions among Marines.

Sev­eral of Hutchins’ code­fen­dants, all of whom are long since freed and have re­turned to civil­ian life, be­lieve the killing, while bru­tal, saved Amer­i­can lives be­cause at­tacks on U.S. troops de­clined in the fol­low­ing months.

Other Marines be­lieve the Marine Corps must retry Hutchins to prove that it can hold its ranks accountable for the unau­tho­rized use of deadly force.

“The Marine Corps is do­ing what jus­tice de­mands,” said Gary So­lis, a re­tired Marine and now an ad­junct law pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity.

“It is be­ing nei­ther un­fair nor harsh,” So­lis said. “An in­no­cent Iraqi male was taken prisoner by Hutchins and his squad and, while he was bound, re­peat­edly shot in the face [and] mur­dered.”

Much of the ev­i­dence against Hutchins will come from squad mem­bers who were con­victed in the case, So­lis noted: “Given the un­usu­ally strong case against Hutchins … the Marine Corps would be derelict were it to walk away from the mur­der of a de­fense­less Iraqi.”

But Bing West, for­mer Marine, for­mer as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of De­fense and au­thor of books about com­bat Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that, given the chaos fac­ing Marine “grunts” dur­ing the Iraq war, a re­trial is un­war­ranted.

“In a sav­age war, Sgt. Hutchins, mis­tak­enly be­liev­ing he was pro­tect­ing his squad, killed an in­no­cent Iraqi,” West said. “He has spent sev­eral years in the brig. Fur­ther pun­ish­ment would be un­just. It is time to al­low him and all of us to move on.”

Marine pros­e­cu­tors de­clined to com­ment.

Christo­pher Oprison, a for­mer Marine and Hutchins’ de­fense at­tor­ney, has promised a vig­or­ous de­fense in which he will as­sert that the Marine Corps is con­tin­u­ing to pur­sue his client for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses.

The case, he said, “is an in­dict­ment of the en­tire mil­i­tary jus­tice sys­tem. The pros­e­cu­tion is bas­ing its case on the in­for­ma­tion ob­tained by rogue NCIS agents who forced th­ese young Marines to con­fess un­der threats and co­er­cion.”

Oprison in­sists that com­ments made by Navy Sec­re­tary Ray Mabus in 2009 al­leg­ing guilt by the Pendle­ton 8 have tainted the case and pre­vented Hutchins from get­ting a fair trial.

“The po­lit­i­cal pres­sure to make an ex­am­ple out of Sgt. Hutchins is pal­pa­ble,” Oprison said. “Enough is enough. The gloves are off. We hope to have Sgt. Hutchins home with his wife and chil­dren on Fa­ther’s Day — a free man.”

Un­der mil­i­tary rules, the jury will in­clude of­fi­cers and en­listed Marines, most, if not all, of whom have served com­bat tours in Iraq, Afghanistan or both. The jury will de­cide guilt or in­no­cence, and pun­ish­ment.

The max­i­mum sen­tence would be at least four years — the re­main­der of his 11year sen­tence. The jury could sen­tence Hutchins to time served, al­low­ing him to im­me­di­ately leave the Marine Corps. He has had job of­fers.

Af­ter a ver­dict, the case will re­turn to the con­ven­ing author­ity, Lt. Gen. Ken­neth McKen­zie Jr., com­man­der of the U.S. Marine Forces Cen­tral Com­mand. McKen­zie would have the author­ity to dis­miss a guilty ver­dict or re­duce a sen­tence — although he could not man­date a guilty ver­dict or in­crease a sen­tence.

Robert Lach­man Los An­ge­les Times

SGT. LAWRENCE HUTCHINS, seen in 2010, spent more than six years be­hind bars. He is free on ap­peal.

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