A Marine sergeant, on trial for the second time in the killing of an unarmed Iraqi man in 2006, was convicted Wednesday of unpremeditated murder in what has become one of the most legally and politically complex courts-martial stemming from the Iraq war.
A six-Marine jury took a little more than three hours to convict Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins, 31. He faces a possible sentence of more than four years in prison and a dishonorable discharge — or as little as time served — when the jury reconvenes Thursday to consider punishment.
Hutchins’ wife, Reyna, burst into tears when the jury's verdict was read. Hutchins, his face flushed, embraced her tightly and stroked her back.
In 2007, Hutchins was convicted of unpremeditated murder and sentenced to 15 years. Had he been convicted of premeditated murder in that trial, he would have faced a mandatory life sentence or a possible death penalty.
But that jury, without explanation, switched the charge to unpremeditated murder, in which a life sentence is an option but not mandatory. The jury’s sentence of 15 years was later reduced by a general to 11 years.
Hutchins, whose previous conviction was overturned twice on appeal, has served more than six years behind bars, at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., and then the brig at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. He has been free since 2013, awaiting retrial.
The maximum sentence from the retrial is the remaining portion of the 11-year sentence.
The jury Wednesday also convicted Hutchins of conspiracy and larceny but acquitted him of making a false report about the 2006 incident. Under military rules, only four of six jurors' votes were needed for a conviction. The actual vote was not revealed.
The defense strategy during the retrial focused on assertions that the NCIS investigation that led to seven Marines and one Navy corpsman being charged in the killing was incompetent and politically motivated in a “rush to judgment.”
NCIS, defense attorney Christopher Oprison told jurors, was reacting to criticism that the military had been slow to investigate the killing of 24 Iraqis, including seven children, by Marines in Haditha in late 2005.
NCIS agents coerced “a bunch of scared kids who just wanted to go home” into making incriminating statements, Oprison told the retrial jury, composed of three officers and three senior enlisted personnel.
Hutchins did not testify. The killing occurred in the Iraqi community of Hamandiya, west of Baghdad. All eight members of his squad were later convicted.
Six of seven of Hutchins’ former squad members — none of whom are still in the military — refused to testify against Hutchins at the retrial, citing their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. The six signed affidavits disavowing their testimony from their courts-martial in which they implicated Hutchins.
The judge allowed prosecutors to have the verbatim transcripts of previous courts-martial read to the jury, over Oprison’s objections.
One former squad member did testify anew, recalling that Hutchins, as he looked at the dead man, told the others, “Gents, congratulations, we just got away with murder.”
Hutchins and the others were accused of dragging a retired Iraqi police officer from his home on April 26, 2006, throwing him in a hole, killing him and telling superiors that he had been killed in a firefight.
“This was a textbook case of a conspiracy and murder,” prosecutor Maj. Adam Workman told jurors. Hutchins was a sergeant and, as the squad leader, was the senior Marine involved in the alleged plot.
Prosecutors said the killing was meant as a warning to villagers to stop helping insurgents plant roadside bombs that were killing and maiming Marines. The Marines were frustrated and angry that suspected insurgents were being released, prosecutors said.
At their own courts-martial, several former squad members testified that Hutchins fired three shots into the man's face. Of the eight defendants, dubbed the Pendleton 8 by their supporters, none of the others served more than 18 months.
A military appeals court in April 2010 ruled that he had been denied a fair trial because one of his attorneys was allowed to withdraw from the case on the eve of trial.
The government later won a reinstatement of the conviction. In 2013, the appeals court ruled that he had been denied a fair trial because of the lengthy interrogation by NCIS agents despite his request for an attorney.
The Marine Corps insisted on a retrial. Awaiting retrial, Hutchins has been assigned to Camp Pendleton and has lived in Oceanside with his wife and three children.