Defense to Challenge Cause of Iraqi’s Death

Times Staff Writer

Lawyers for a Marine Corps sergeant accused of brutality in the death of an Iraqi prisoner said in court Monday that they planned to challenge the military’s finding that the prisoner died of a broken neck.

At a pretrial hearing for Sgt. Gary Pittman, his lawyers asked the military judge, Col. Robert Chester, to provide them with a forensic pathologist to serve as an expert witness to counter the official version of the death of Magem Sadoon Hatab, 52, a Baath Party official who died days after being held at a detention facility in southern Iraq.

Pittman is accused of dereliction of duty and assault for allegedly punching and karate-kicking Hatab.

But defense lawyers want the right to question the military pathologist who did the autopsy on Hatab, who was found dead June 6, 2003. Hatab was found lying naked and covered with feces at the Whitehorse detention facility run by a battalion of reservist Marines from New England.


Among other things, Pittman’s lawyers said they wanted to question why, after being unable to affix a cause of death, the pathologist then decided to pinpoint the cause as a broken bone in the neck.

The conclusion was reached after the pathologist consulted with a Marine Corps lawyer and a pathologist with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, according to testimony at a previous hearing.

Defense attorneys have asserted that officials were eager to gather evidence pointing to brutality at the detention facility because Hatab’s death had angered the commanding general, who ordered an investigation.

Chester, annoyed that prosecutors have been slow to assemble evidence in the case, delayed making a ruling on the requests. “Fish or cut bait, let’s get on with it,” Chester told the lead prosecutor, Maj. Leon Francis.


Testimony at previous hearings indicated that Hatab was dragged by his neck by a Marine when he refused an order to move into a cell. But there was conflicting evidence that he appeared ill when he was first arrested in a sweep of Iraqis.

A pretrial hearing is set for today for Maj. Clark Paulus, who was in charge of the detention facility. Paulus is charged with dereliction of duty, assault, and intentional infliction of cruelty and maltreatment.

Pittman, a reservist who as a civilian is a federal prison guard in New York, faces a maximum of three years in prison if convicted.