Clues to release of convicted Marine

Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — Cpl. Trent D. Thomas had all the makings of a recruiting-poster Marine: a decorated warrior, devoted to his fellow grunts, hugely appreciative of the Marine Corps for helping him escape an impoverished upbringing in East St. Louis.

But he was also a leader in the kidnapping and killing of an unarmed man in the Iraqi village of Hamandiya and then lying to superiors about it.

When other Marines began to waver, Thomas, who won a meritorious promotion for his role in the bloody fight in Fallouja, Iraq, in 2004, kept them in line. And as the Iraqi, whom they considered an insurgent, lay on the ground mortally wounded, Thomas pumped three bullets into his chest.

So why did the military jury that convicted Thomas of kidnapping and conspiracy to commit murder decide Friday that he deserved no further punishment beyond the 14 months he had spent in the brig awaiting trial?

Thomas, 25, could have received life in prison without the possibility of parole. Instead, he was sent home to Fontana with his wife, Erica, and their two small children. The jury also decided on a bad-conduct discharge rather than the more serious dishonorable discharge that the prosecution requested.

Unless the jurors violate the judge’s order not to talk about their decision, the reasons behind it may never be fully known. But two clues stand out: the jury’s composition and the defense put on by Thomas’ lawyers.

All nine jurors were combat veterans of Iraq, seven of them from infantry battalions. Of the three officers on the jury, two had experience as enlisted Marines. Five of the jurors were African American, as is Thomas.

After the verdict, Thomas’ civilian and military lawyers told reporters that they wanted to thank Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis for making sure Thomas had “a true jury of his peers.”

Mattis, commanding general of the Marine Forces Central Command, selected the pool from which the jurors were picked.

Deanna Pennington, mother of Lance Cpl. Robert Pennington, who pleaded guilty and accepted an eight-year prison sentence, told reporters later that her son took a plea bargain because his jury pool contained few combat veterans. Her son feared that Marines who had not been to Iraq would never understand what happened in Hamandiya that night in April 2006.

During the court-martial, Thomas’ attorneys also asserted that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. The defense backed up the assertion with possibly the most detailed explanation of those conditions yet seen in a court-martial for Marines in Iraq, including expert testimony that proximity to repeated explosions from roadside bombs and mortar rounds had left Thomas’ thinking and judgment impaired.

In January, Thomas pleaded guilty and was prepared to accept a 12-year prison sentence, but changed his mind and asked for a trial. Four Marines and a Navy corpsman pleaded guilty in the case and received sentences of 10 months to eight years.

Two final courts-martial, including one for the alleged mastermind, Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III, are set to begin this week.

Whether the decision by the jury in Thomas’ case will influence those trials is unknown. Thomas’ personal story and his lawyers’ defense strategy may prove unique.

Looking at his fellow Iraq veterans on the jury, Thomas, in an unsworn statement before the sentencing deliberations, talked of the kind of experience they have in common: the grief of seeing buddies killed in combat.

After losing friends in Fallouja, he said, he decided, “I’m getting cheated on life. This ain’t right.”

After he was freed, reporters asked Thomas about the killing. He suggested that to truly understand that night takes a special knowledge, the kind he and the jurors possess.

“I think anybody who understands what war is, or what combat is, understands,” he said.