California Marine released in Iraqi war crime case after murder conviction overturned.

By Julie Watson, AP
Monday, June 14, 2010

Judge releases Marine in Iraqi war crimes case

SAN DIEGO — A military judge has released a Marine sergeant accused of killing an unarmed, 52-year-old Iraqi man in one of the biggest war crimes cases to emerge from the Iraq war.

The surprise decision came nearly two months after a military appeals court ruled Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III had an unfair trial and threw out his murder conviction. However, the Navy is appealing the ruling and prosecutors wanted to keep Hutchins in confinement during the appeal process.

But on Monday, a judge released Hutchins after his attorney, Capt. Babu Kaza, argued that the married father of a 5-year-old girl was not a flight risk or a threat to society.

The decision deals another blow to the government’s prosecution of U.S. troops accused of killing unarmed Iraqis.

Attorneys for the government have said Hutchins led a squad of seven troops who dragged Hashim Ibrahim Awad from his home in the Iraqi village of Hamdania in 2006 and killed him. They then planted a shovel and AK-47 to make it appear he was an insurgent.

“I’m going to be the best Marine I can be today,” an elated Hutchins told The Associated Press in a phone interview after being released from the brig at Camp Pendleton. “Today is really a surreal experience. I think we had a good judge. … It’s hard to describe exactly what I’m feeling. I’m happy.”

He’ll be allowed to remain free while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces decides whether to affirm or reverse the lower court’s ruling that overturned the conviction. The higher court will hear arguments from both sides this fall and could take until next year to make a decision.

Hutchins had been serving an 11-year sentence. The others in his squad served less than 18 months.

The U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals in Washington ruled in April that Hutchins was not given a fair trial because his lead defense lawyer left the case shortly before his 2007 trial.

Prosecutors could not immediately be reached for comment after the hearing Monday.

Hutchins said he called his family immediately after the judge’s decision to tell them the news. He was preparing to call his daughter, Kylie, next.

“I’m going to tell her she’s my little princess, of course,” Hutchins said.

Hutchins packed his bags and then Kaza drove him to a Taco Bell on the base about a mile from the brig.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told the Marine Corps Times last year that he believes Hutchins was the ringleader in the premeditated murder plot and attempted cover-up, and that he should complete the full sentence. Hutchins was initially sentenced to 14 years but that was later reduced.

Hutchins has said he was not with his squad at the time and that members of his squad told him they had killed an insurgent leader. Hutchins said he did not learn of the mistake until after the investigation.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces faces several options: It can reverse the lower court’s ruling and reinstate the conviction and sentence — or it can affirm it and send the case to Camp Pendleton, where the general can order a new trial. The time Hutchins has spent in jail can be applied toward his new sentence if he gets one.

Another option is the court could decide to keep his conviction but rule that he should be given a new sentencing hearing. If the court reinstates his conviction and sentence, Hutchins can appeal to the military’s supreme court.

If Hutchins wins his case in a new trial, he has said that he wants to live with his parents in Plymouth, Mass., and help them pay off their mortgage since they refinanced their home several times to cover his legal expenses. He hopes to work at the local sheriff’s department, where his brother works.

(This version CORRECTS RECASTS and corrects in graf 11 that the Taco Bell is on the base.)

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