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09-30-09, 08:37 AM #1
Government drops charge in Fallujah deaths
Government drops charge in Fallujah deaths
By Elliot Spagat - The Associated Press
Posted : Wednesday Sep 30, 2009 8:20:24 EDT
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — The government has dropped a murder charge against a Marine who pleaded guilty Tuesday to dereliction of duty for killing an unarmed Iraqi detainee during a battle to recapture the city of Fallujah.
If convicted of murder, Sgt. Jermaine Nelson could have faced a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Instead, he now faces a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a dishonorable discharge under the plea agreement.
Defense attorney Joseph Low told reporters the agreement says Nelson will not serve any prison time and will be honorably discharged.
“It’s over,” Low said during a recess.
Military officials wouldn’t immediately confirm the terms of the plea deal.
The judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, does not know the sentence spelled out in the plea bargain. He could order a stiffer penalty, but the ultimate punishment will be the less severe of the two sentences.
Nelson admitted that he wrongly killed the unarmed detainee, one of four Iraqi men who surrendered when his squad entered a home in November 2004. He said he fired anyway on orders from his squad leader, former Sgt. Jose Luis Nazario.
“I knew it was wrong, I knew it was unlawful,” Nelson told the judge. “I didn’t want to go against what Sgt. Nazario told me to do.”
Nelson, 28, said he was taught “in class after class after class” to move the unarmed detainee to a safe place. He also accepted blame for the other three men who, according to the government, were killed by other squad members.
“That was part of my job, to ensure the safety of all the detainees,” Nelson said.
Nelson is the only remaining defendant in a case that has resulted in two defeats for the government. Nelson’s squadmate, Sgt. Ryan Weemer, was acquitted by a military jury of the same charges in April. That jury consisted of eight Marines, all of whom served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Nazario, Nelson’s squad leader, was acquitted last year in federal court in Riverside, Calif., on counts that included voluntary manslaughter. Nazario was beyond the reach of a court-martial because he had completed his military obligations.
During Weemer’s one-week court-martial at Pendleton, the defense argued that the government could not prove Weemer was guilty of murder because there were no bodies, no relatives complaining of a lost loved one and no forensic evidence.
The case came to light long after the battle.
In 2006, after he left the Marine Corps, Weemer applied for a job in the Secret Service. During a background interview before a polygraph test as part of the application, he was asked about the most serious crime he ever committed.
“We went into this house, there happened to be four or five guys in the house,” Weemer said in a recording of the interview played during his trial. “We ended up shooting them, we had to.”
Weemer’s account triggered an investigation that led to the charges.
Nelson’s squad was from Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, the same company that a year later was involved in the widely publicized killings of 24 men, women and children in Haditha, Iraq. None of the Marines from the Fallujah case were involved in the Haditha case.
Eight Marines were charged in the Haditha killings, the biggest criminal case against U.S. troops to come out of the Iraq war. Charges were dismissed against six defendants and a seventh was acquitted. The sole remaining defendant is the squad leader, Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, whose court-martial is not scheduled.
09-30-09, 10:00 AM #2
MILITARY: Fallujah defendant admits killing, pleads guilty to dereliction of duty
Sgt. Jermaine Nelson will not get any jail time and could get honorable discharge, attorney says
MARK WALKER - firstname.lastname@example.org | Posted: Tuesday, September 29, 2009 11:25 am
A Marine on Tuesday admitted killing an unarmed prisoner during a 2004 battle for the Iraqi city of Fallujah, but he is not expected to receive any jail time and could leave the service with an honorable discharge, his attorney said.
Sgt. Jermaine Nelson's admission came as part of an agreement that saw him plead guilty to two counts of dereliction of duty for violating the military's rules of engagement and ignoring the laws of armed conflict with regard to treatment of enemy prisoners.
Two other men accused of murder for the deaths of three other detainees in the same incident were each acquitted in separate trials.
In exchange for Nelson's plea, the government is withdrawing a murder charge that could have seen him sentenced to life in prison, said one of the prosecutors, Maj. Donald Plowman.
The deal was announced moments after Nelson's court-martial began in a Camp Pendleton courtroom.
"I entered a house with four individuals standing there with no weapons," the 28-year-old former New Yorker told the judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred. "None made it back out alive, sir."
Nelson said he shot one of four detainees at the direction of his then-squad leader, former Marine Sgt. Jose L. Nazario Jr.
He said he knew he was breaking the law when he took part in the slayings.
"Sergeant Nazario told me what to do," Nelson said. "I knew it was wrong. I knew it was unlawful. But I didn't want to go against Sergeant Nazario."
Nazario was acquitted last year on two counts of manslaughter. He was tried as a civilian in U.S. District Court in Riverside because he was out of the Marine Corps and not subject to recall.
The third defendant, former Marine Sgt. Ryan Weemer, was acquitted of murder by a military jury at Camp Pendleton in April.
Nelson said he knew he should have protected the suspected insurgent he was guarding because the man was unarmed and no longer presented a threat.
"I was supposed to ensure the safety of the detainee, and I did not do that," he told the judge.
The deal Nelson got means he won't see any time behind bars and won't receive a bad conduct or dishonorable discharge, according to his lead attorney, Joseph Low. Nelson could have received one year in prison, a bad conduct discharge and reduction in rank to private
"He won't have a felony conviction, he can re-enlist in another service and he can even try and re-enlist in the Marine Corps," Low said, adding prosecutors were the ones who first broached the deal.
Nelson agreed to the deal in part because the government had six different statements in which he admitted the killing. The fact that he won't see any jail time is because of Nelson's assistance to investigators, Low said.
"He's the only one of the three who helped," he said.
The sentencing phase of the case continues Wednesday. The defense called several character witnesses Tuesday who spoke glowingly of Nelson's conduct during two deployments to Iraq.
A psychiatrist, Dr. Roger Pitman, testified that Nelson suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression as a result of his combat experiences and seeing friends killed.
After the hearing concludes, the judge, who is unaware of the terms of the plea deal, will issue his sentence. He will then unseal the plea deal and Nelson will receive whichever sentence is lesser.
The incident came to light when Weemer told a Secret Service agent about the shootings during a job interview in 2006.
He said that after the squad captured the suspects inside a Fallujah home, Nazario reported having the men in custody and was directed to "take care of it."
That led to what prosecutors say was Nazario shooting two of the men and Weemer and Nelson each shooting one.
Jurors who acquitted Nazario said they did not believe they were equipped to second-guess actions on the battlefield.
Weemer was acquitted after contending the man he was guarding made an attempt to take away his pistol.
Nelson's enlistment in the Marine Corps is up. He has been working on base under a legal hold while his case was pending.
Fallujah was a flashpoint in the Iraq war. In early 2004, insurgents ambushed and killed three Blackwater Security civilian contractors and hung two of their corpses from a bridge.
U.S. forces left the city shortly thereafter at the request of the Iraqi government.
Six months later, U.S. troops returned and launched a massive fight to retake the city. The resistance was overcome by late December, and several Camp Pendleton Marines were later honored with awards for valorous actions.
Ninety-five U.S. troops were killed and more than 600 were wounded in the Fallujah battle, according to officials. An estimated 1,350 insurgents were killed and 1,000 captured.
Call staff writer Mark Walker at 760-740-3529.
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