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thedrifter
11-20-06, 08:07 AM
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Plea deals in Marines' cases surprise some
Four servicemen being held at Camp Pendleton still face charges in death of Iraqi man.
The Associated Press

CAMP PENDLETON – In the beginning, there were eight. A squad of seven Marines and a Navy corpsman were charged with kidnapping and killing an Iraqi man, a slaying described by a prosecutor as especially brutal.

They faced military trials, and the death penalty was possible.

Now there are four. In the six months the men have been held in the Camp Pendleton brig, the profile of the Hamdania cases has changed dramatically. The death penalty is off the table, and four defendants have struck plea bargains.

Some observers find the developments mystifying.

Gary Solis, a former Marine Corps prosecutor and judge who teaches law of war at Georgetown University Law Center, said he was surprised by the number of plea agreements in this case.

"It's a wonderment to me that it's happening in the military system," he said.

The group was accused of kidnapping 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Awad in the town of Hamdania, taking him to a roadside hole, shooting him and trying to cover up the episode. According to court testimony, the troops planned to kidnap and kill a known insurgent, and when they couldn't get to him, some members of the squad went into Awad's home.

"They killed a 52-year-old crippled man in cold blood," Lt. Col. John Baker, a prosecutor, said at a recent hearing. "They killed a retired police officer with 11 children and four grandchildren," Baker said. "Hashim Awad was a very forgiving and gentle man." He was precisely the kind of man the Marines were sent to help, he added.

Despite the prosecution's argument that the Marine squad was a lawless gang intent on killing, Baker and the military's judicial system agreed to plea deals resulting in minimal sentences. Judges have listened to testimony and recommended sentences, only to have them trumped by plea bargains. Defense lawyers have said their clients did no wrong and would be found not guilty at trial.

David Glazier, a Loyola University Law School professor who teaches the law of war, said that with so many defendants, prosecutors may be weighing who may be most at fault.

"They may feel that two or three were the ringleaders and others went along because of peer pressure," he said.

Solis suggested that another pending case could be playing a role. The Marine Corps has been investigating whether a squad deliberately killed up to 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in November 2005 and whether efforts were made to cover up the incident. Charges have not been filed.

That could strain the military's judicial system, Solis said.

"I think they're clearing the decks for the Haditha cases," he said.

But former Army prosecutor and California Assemblyman Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, said he doubted that a lack of resources would be a reason to accept pleas.

"Something as high profile as this – they can free up resources," Umberg said. "They can activate reservists. ... In a case like this, the Marine Corps would find adequate resources to ensure adequate prosecution."

Even as trials are scheduled for the four defendants who have not yet made deals, further plea bargains are still a possibility.

But Solis said he is confident there will be trials in the case.

"A trial serves many purposes, and one is to achieve justice and exact punishment for criminal misconduct," he said. "The accused are well-represented. But who speaks for the dead man? Who represents society? That's the purpose of the trial."