The War in Iraq: A civilian's view
Gainesville lawyer visits front lines in defense of soldier

The Times

A Gainesville lawyer said a recent Marines-eye view of Iraq only strengthened his anti-war stance, and his defense of a Marine sergeant charged with murdering an Iraqi man in that war. Rich Brannon spent about 10 days in Iraq last month.

The trip shepherded by the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force allowed him to question residents, visit the town where his client, Sgt. Lawrence G. Hutchins III, is accused of killing an unarmed civilian, and sample the war in a soldier's boots.

Brannon said he rode on patrol in Fallujah, crammed into Coyote reconnaissance vehicles. He walked the streets of Hamdania with Marines. Flew at night in blacked-out helicopters. Heard the thump of mortars fired. Saw rubble fields and burned cars. Visited places with names ingrained in America's war consciousness: Baghdad, Tikrit, Abu Ghraib.

His impression: "We need to get ... out of there."

Brannon, who did a stint with the Marines more than three decades ago, maintains the United States should never have gone to war. The country is now riddled with sectarian strife. As Congress debates the troop buildup pushed by President Bush, Brannon said during an interview Wednesday that nothing he saw in Iraq made him think differently.

"I believe it will end up like Vietnam no matter how much effort we expend. No matter how much money we spend trying to train the Iraqis (in security). ... Basically, it will never work. There are too many factors."

He said this trip does not compare to when he went to Kuwait and southern Iraq in 2004, part of a successful defense of an Army specialist acquitted of stealing government equipment.

That was Disneyland, he said. This Iraq "is just a helluva place to go."

Brannon traveled with Hutchins' military lawyer and the civilian attorney for another man involved in the high-profile war case.

Hutchins, of Plymouth, Mass., was charged with six other Marines and a Navy corpsman in what prosecutors and some squad members say was a plot to kill 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Awad after a targeted insurgent could not be found in Hamdania, a small village northwest of Fallujah.

According to court testimony, Awad was taken from of his home on the night of April 26, led to a roadside hole, bound and shot. An AK-47 and shovel were placed by his body to make it appear he had been trying to plant a bomb.

Four of the accused have pleaded guilty to lesser charges. The deals require them to testify.

A fifth man, a corporal, pleaded guilty to murder, kidnapping and other charges. But a military judge at Camp Pendleton, Calif., allowed him to withdraw that plea Thursday.

Cpl. Trent Thomas now contends he was following the orders of squad leader Hutchins and those higher up the chain of command.

Hutchins, who is being held at Camp Pendleton, faces life in prison or the death penalty if convicted. But the lieutenant general overseeing the case has said he doesn't want any of the accused troops to face execution, according to The Associated Press.

The Navy corpsman, who plead guilty, has told prosecutors that after Awad was dead, Hutchins said, "Congratulations, we just got away with murder, gents."

Thomas has testified that Hutchins did a "dead-check," firing a three-round burst into Awad's head, according to press accounts.

Hutchins also faces assault charges in three separate incidents.

Brannon will represent him in those cases as well. Hutchins' family hired him after the Hamdania incident. The attorney said his goal from the start was to go to Iraq. He said he always visits the scene of the alleged crime.

He prepared by hiring a private trainer to help him get fit. The military schooled him in urban warfare situations, such as ambushes.

Brannon had to cut his hair, shave his beard, wear the Marines' coyote-colored camouflage and flak jackets, and leave his camera in the patrol vehicles. All to keep up and blend in.

Standing out, said Brannon, who turned 59 in Iraq, can be dangerous.

He said it was no surprise that Iraqis did not want to talk to him and his interpreter. A sheik pegged as a spokesman for Awad's family knew less than he did, Brannon said.

But experiencing the patrols and seeing the proximity of houses where Awad and the man the squad first sought lived, and where others supposedly where, all helped, he said.

Brannon also contends the trip will give him credence with military jurors. The trial could be held the first week of May, he said.

He discounts the testimony of squad members who struck deals. Other evidence, Brannon said, will show that "Sgt. Hutchins thought he had ... the high-value target (sought) in hand."

He emphasized the nerve-shredding situation in Iraq, where enemies are indistinguishable from innocent civilians, Hutchins had seen friends die five months into his first war tour, and death by explosion or a sniper's bullet is always a threat "outside the wire" at military camps.

Photographs Brannon clicked through Coyote and Humvee windows hint at the setting he described as hazardous and surreal.

One shot shows Iraqi men near burned out buses. Residents do not smile or wave. They only stare, Brannon said.

Cars that pull beside patrol vehicles draw nervous scrutiny. Squad leaders hurry to return to camp before nightfall, he said.

Stretches of the sand and green scrub in what soldiers call "cowboy country" are littered with building rubble. Poverty is rampant, he said. So is the stench of garbage and feces.

Freeways leading into Baghdad look like a congestion-free Interstate 85, with signs in Arabic and English. But Brannon said Hutchins warned him to avoid riding in the last Humvee in a convoy, even on major highways. Insurgents target the first and last vehicles, he said.

Brannon flew in CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters -- like the one that crashed Wednesday, killing seven -- and C-130 Hercules transport planes. All flew at night, with lights out, and went into a dive before flaring out to land, a tactic to avoid ground fire, Brannon said.

The digital pictures also show camps shielded by tall concrete sections. Lower ones inside offer refuge when insurgents strike. One in a row of bunkers beside the mess hall at Camp Fallujah has "Thunder Shack" painted on the side.

Though Brannon said his group was not attacked, mortars fell early on his first morning in Fallujah. Gunfire crackled often. The bulletproof windows of the Coyote he road in were pockmarked by hits.

One driver shocked Brannon and others by occasionally yelling "Boom!"

"They have kind a black sense of humor," he said, grinning.

But Brannon told of one Marine who admitted how scared he was as they walked through a town.

"That was an eye-opener to me," Brannon said. "He didn't show any fear in his eyes."

He said he admires the troops. He calls them heroes.

"Nothing makes me angrier than those who say if you're against the war, you're against the troops."

He also said the scale of death and destruction is numbing. Twenty-two people died in a car bomb the day after he left Baghdad.

Brannon said he favors cases where "somebody may have done something wrong, but others would have done the same thing under the same conditions."

Asked if this one fits that description, he said maybe, maybe not. The evidence will tell, Brannon said.

(Accounts from The Associated Press contributed to this story.)

Contact:, (770) 718-3411

Originally published Sunday, February 11, 2007

About the case

Gainesville attorney Rich Brannon is helping defend Marine Sgt. Lawrence G. Hutchins III of murder and other charges in the April 26 death of an unarmed Iraqi man.

Hutchins led a squad of seven Marines and a sailor accused of kidnapping 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Awad from his home in Hamdania at night, shooting him to death, then placing a gun and shovel beside his body to make it appear he was an insurgent caught planting a bomb.

According to prosecutors and testimonies, the squad wanted to kill another insurgent suspected of planting bombs, but couldn't find him and instead kidnapped Awad.

Four of the accused have pleaded guilty to reduced charges.

A judge at Camp Pendleton, Calif., allowed a fifth man to withdraw his guilty plea for murder and kidnapping Thursday.

Marine Cpl. Trent Thomas, the first to plead guilty to murder, said he no longer believes he is guilty. Instead, Thomas said he was following a lawful order from Hutchins and others higher up the chain of command.

Prosecutors plan to file new charges.

Hutchins, of Plymouth, Mass., pleaded not guilty at his arraignment.

Brannon, who recently spent about 10 days in Iraq researching the case, maintains his client's innocence. He has suggested that the stress of the Iraq war and possible ties between Awad and insurgents played a role.

Brannon said the military could be held in early May at Camp Pendleton, where the sergeant is being held.

He also represents Hutchins in three separate assault cases.

Sources: Times, Associated Press, other media reports