Retrial set for Marine in killing of Iraqi civilian, last of Pendleton 8

Marine sergeant faces retrial in 2006 killing of Iraqi, could be returned to prison

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 most high-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 were also convicted in what was called the Pendleton 8 case. As the squad leader, Hutchins got the longest sentence, 15 years, later reduced to 11.

Appeals courts twice have overturned Hutchins' conviction: once on grounds that the NCIS illegally obtained a confession, 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' co-defendants, all of whom are long since freed and 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 would not 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 Secy. 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, most of whom, if not all, have served combat tours in Iraq, Afghanistan or both. The jury will decide guilt or innocence, and punishment.

The maximum sentence would be four-plus years -- the remainder of the 11-year 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.

tony.perry@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATsandiego

 

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