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Marine Corps to retry sergeant in Iraq war case

January 28, 2014

SAN DIEGO (AP) — The Marine Corps will retry a sergeant whose murder conviction in a major Iraq war crime case has been overturned twice by military courts in recent years, a spokesman said Monday.

The military branch determined that the seriousness of the crime warranted a retrial of the case of Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III, who led an eight-man squad accused of kidnapping a retired Iraqi policeman in the village of Hamdania in 2006 and shooting him to death in a ditch, Marine Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Joseph Kloppel said.

The military prosecution has evidence to support its murder charge, including sworn statements, Kloppel said. He declined to give further details.

Military legal experts said the move by the prosecution was unusual. Hutchins expressed disbelief and called the latest development “devastating,” lamenting that his life has been in legal limbo for nearly eight years. His wife, he said, is pregnant with their third child.

“There is nothing that I want more than for this whole situation to be over... to be able to move on and begin a life with my family away from all of this,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “But even though it has been nearly eight years, it looks like that will not be possible.”

Hutchins will be arraigned Wednesday at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, where he had been working on a marksmanship training unit since being released last year from military prison.

The military’s highest court overturned his murder conviction and ordered Hutchins released from the brig last summer after ruling there were errors in his case. The sergeant had served more than half of his 11-year sentence.

The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces supported his claims that his rights were violated when he was held in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer for seven days during his 2006 interrogation in Iraq.

Prosecutors said Hutchins waived his right to counsel at the time and willfully told his side of the story without coercion.

His conviction was first overturned by a lower court in 2010 that ruled his 2007 trial was unfair because his lead defense lawyer quit shortly before it began. Hutchins was released briefly before the highest court weighed in and reinstated his conviction in 2011, saying that it did not believe the change in his defense lawyer was a grave enough error to throw out the conviction.

But the highest court agreed with Hutchins’ petition last year that his rights being violated during the interrogation did warrant overturning his conviction and ordered him immediately released.

Hutchins has said he thought retired policeman Hashim Ibrahim Awad was an insurgent leader. Prosecutors accused the squad of planting a shovel and AK-47 to make it appear he was an insurgent.

The six other Marines and a Navy corpsman in his squad served less than 18 months locked up.

Former Marine Corps attorney Thad Coakley said the courts have thrown out the convictions for procedural errors rather than the merits of the murder charge, so it’s important the prosecution exhaust every avenue.

“If we’re perceived to have ignored this because it happened in war, or white-washed it because of procedural errors or to have not taken it seriously, then we are discrediting ourselves,” he said. “This is not only about past conflicts but future conflicts and the way we hold other nations and ourselves to standards of conduct.”

The overturning of the conviction had been considered a major blow to the military’s prosecution of U.S. troops accused of killing unarmed Iraqis.

“The fact it’s gone on this way is frustrating but the case has still not been resolved, and ultimately a resolution is what both Sgt. Hutchins and the U.S. government want, even if the end result that each wants is different,” Coakley said.