A casualty of callousness

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Columnist | October 8, 2009

We are a forgiving lot, we Americans. We believe in redemption as much as anybody, and that would explain why we released Laith al-Khazali to the bosom of his family.

Laith al-Khazali is a leader of Asa’ib al-Haq, the Iranian-backed insurgents in Iraq who, among other things, killed five American soldiers in the holy city of Karbala two years ago.

But in what the US military described as its contribution to fostering reconciliation between the Iraqi government and insurgents, al-Khazali was recently released from American custody.

This is all well and good, but it does beg the question: Why is Larry Hutchins still in prison?

Hutchins is from Plymouth. His father, Lawrence G. Hutchins Jr., was a Marine, and his grandfather, Lawrence G. Hutchins Sr., was a Marine, and all Lawrence G. Hutchins III wanted was to be a Marine. He signed up at 17 but had to wait until he got out of Plymouth High to go to boot camp.

He was sent to Iraq and saw some bad things. His platoon was ambushed one day and he called in an airstrike. The bomb hit the wrong house, and when Sergeant Larry Hutchins ran to the rubble, he saw dead women and children.

The insurgents who ambushed them that day kept ambushing them, killing Marines, and as soon as his platoon arrested a suspected insurgent, someone with a higher rank released them. Three years ago, Hutchins’s unit abducted a man named Hashim Awad in a small village in Anbar Province, and, in a moment of madness or frustration or both, Hutchins shot him in the head.

“What was right and what was wrong became blurred with the circumstances and the orders I was given,’’ Hutchins wrote in his own defense. “I believed then and still to this day that I was protecting my Marines.’’

Whatever it was, Hutchins was convicted of murder, got 15 years, and sits in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth.

The Naval Clemency and Parole Board voted unanimously to grant clemency, noting the wide discrepancy in his sentence compared to others in his platoon. They recommended reducing his sentence to five years, which would make him eligible for immediate release.

But Donald Winter, the Bush administration holdover as Secretary of the Navy, rejected the recommendation earlier this year.

“The clemency board’s recommendations are adopted 99 percent of the time,’’ said US Representative Bill Delahunt, Hutchins’s congressman and most outspoken supporter. “The clemency board was set up to avoid these discrepancies. You can’t scapegoat one guy. This is a good kid who made a huge mistake in a time of war.’’

Winter’s background irks Delahunt as much as the decision.

“Winter isn’t a veteran. He has no combat experience. He was a defense contractor,’’ Delahunt said. “The only thing he knows about war is that it made him rich.’’

Delahunt and his counsel, John Kivlan, have spent years trying to get Hutchins out. In a prior life, Delahunt was district attorney in Norfolk County and Kivlan was his homicide prosecutor.

When Ray Mabus replaced Winter over the summer, Delahunt and Kivlan met with him, but he appears willing to let Hutchins wait for his annual review next year.

So Larry Hutchins, killer of a single Iraqi, sits in prison while Laith al-Khazali, killer of many Americans, enjoys his freedom and his family.

Larry Hutchins is 25, his life ruined, his marriage over, his parents almost bankrupt, a casualty in a needless war that was started by those who never dreamed of sending their own kids to fight it.

“There are so many casualties from this war,’’ Delahunt said. “Seen and unseen.’’