Servicemen Charged in Iraqi Civilian Deaths

By Tony Perry

Los Angeles Times

June 22, 2006

CAMP PENDLETON — Charges of premeditated murder, kidnapping and conspiracy have been filed against eight servicemen in connection with the death of an Iraqi civilian, officials said today.

The charges against seven Marines and one sailor were lodged by Lt. Gen. John Sattler, commander of all U.S. Marines in the Central Command, which covers Iraq. The charges now go to the military equivalent of a preliminary hearing or grand jury proceeding to determine if courts-martial will be convened.

"The Marine Corps also prides itself on holding its members accountable for their actions," said spokesman Col. Stewart Navarre of the charges, the latest involving questionable military actions in Iraq.

The eight accused have been held at Camp Pendleton since they were shipped back from Iraq in late May. All are from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

They were identified as: Marines Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III, Cpl. Trent Thomas, Lance Cpl. Tyler Jackson, Pvt. 1st Class John Jodka, Lance Cpl. Jerry Shumate Jr., Lance Cpl. Robert Pennington and Cpl. Marshall Magin Calba and Navy Corpsman Melson Bacos.

If convicted on the murder charges, they could face the death penalty.

The charges stem from an incident on April 26 in Hamandiya, Iraq. U.S. forces allegedly broke into a house and dragged out an unarmed 52-year-old man, Hashim Ibrahim Awad.

The man was killed. According to officials, an AK-47 and a shovel were left near the body to make it appear that he was an insurgent caught digging a hole to place a roadside bomb.

The military launched an investigation after the man's family members came to authorities and protested his slaying.

Until Friday, the eight defendants in the Hamandiya case were shackled whenever they left their cells.

But after protests from attorneys and family members, the Marine Corps, in what it called a routine reevaluation, determined that shackling the eight was not necessary.

Two family members have created websites to rally support and seek donations for a legal defense fund.

Defense attorneys have suggested that relatives of the slain Iraqi may have concocted the story in hopes of getting money from the United States. The military has dispensed millions of dollars to Iraqis who have lost family members or had property destroyed.

The victim's body has been exhumed and brought to the U.S. for autopsy.

Four other members of the same battalion are possible witnesses.

The Hamandiya case comes amid a continuing investigation into killings by Marines of 24 Iraqis, including women and children, in the insurgent stronghold of Haditha on Nov. 19.

It also comes in the same week as the military announced that three U.S. Army soldiers were charged with premeditated murder in connection with the killing of three Iraqi detainees, as well as with threatening the life of a fellow soldier, who they feared would challenge their accounts of the deaths.

The military did not begin investigating the Haditha case until after Time magazine began probing the military's story that 24 people died from an insurgent bomb or in the crossfire between Marines and insurgents. The magazine interviewed Iraqis who disputed that view.

An investigation by a two-star Army general has now concluded that the Marines killed the 24 without provocation and that officers were negligent in not demanding a full investigation before Time magazine reporters began its inquiry.

A Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation will help determine whether criminal charges are filed, including murder.

In the wake of that case, Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee went to Iraq to lecture troops on the need to follow the laws of war that call for the protection of non-combatants. He also visited bases in this country, including Camp Pendleton last week, with the same message.

"As commandant I am gravely concerned about the serious allegations concerning actions of some Marines at Haditha and Hamandiya," Hagee told a Pentagon news conference June 7. "I can assure you that the Marine Corps takes them seriously."

Staff writer Michael Muskal contributed from Los Angeles.