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Court martial not advised for Marine in Iraq deaths

Times Staff Writer

A Marine hearing officer Monday recommended against sending a Marine sniper to a court-martial in the shooting deaths of two Syrians and the wounding of two others in Iraq.

Instead, the officer, Capt. Jeffery King, recommended that a dereliction of duty charge against Sgt. Johnny Winnick be handled through nonjudicial punishment and that manslaughter and assault charges be dropped. In nonjudicial punishment, the harshest penalty would be a demotion and a reprimand.

The recommendation now goes to Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland, commander of the Marine Corps Forces Central Command. The leader of a six-man sniper team, Winnick was on his fourth deployment to Iraq when the shootings occurred on June 17, 2007, in the Lake Tharthar region about 50 miles northwest of Baghdad. Winnick believed the Syrians were planting a roadside bomb when they stopped their truck at a spot where Marines had suspected such a bomb might be placed.

Winnick opened fire and ordered his team to continue firing as they charged toward the downed men.

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No evidence was uncovered that the four men had been planting a bomb. Winnick’s superiors felt he had violated the Marine Corps’ rules of engagement that require “positive identification” that a target has committed a “hostile act” or has “hostile intent.”

But during a preliminary hearing at Camp Pendleton, a defense expert said those terms are vague and confusing to frontline troops. A lieutenant assigned to oversee Winnick’s sniper team testified that, in the weeks before the shooting, he had tried unsuccessfully to get clear rules from more senior officers about when snipers could use deadly force.

After the shooting, Winnick, 24, of San Diego was removed as sniper team leader and snipers were told that they could shoot only if an officer had given approval.

In an unsworn statement during the preliminary hearing, Winnick said that he fired on the Syrians because he felt that they were a threat to his Marines and that he ordered a charge because he felt his team’s hiding spot made it vulnerable to attack.

As one of the Syrians crawled toward a cellphone, Winnick, who believed the man might use the phone to detonate an explosive, killed him with a blast from a shotgun, Winnick’s attorneys said.

“Our Marines deserve the benefit of the doubt when they make good-faith decisions to use force in self-defense during combat,” Daniel Conway, one of Winnick’s attorneys, said after the hearing officer’s report was released. “Sgt. Winnick is a stand-up Marine, and he’s eager to get back to work.”

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tony.perry@latimes.com


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