By Josh White and Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 22, 2006
Seven Marines and one Navy corpsman have been charged with murder and kidnapping in connection with the April death of an Iraqi man in a small village west of Baghdad, Marine Corps officials announced yesterday.
The corps said that the eight sought out Hashim Ibrahim Awad in his Hamdaniyah home, dragged him into the street, bound his hands and feet, and shot him during a late-night operation, according to Marine criminal-charge sheets released yesterday. The troops are members of a fire team with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. It is unclear what motivated the incident.
The announcement marked the second time this week that the U.S. military has charged troops with murder in Iraq. Army officials announced Monday that three soldiers had been accused of killing three men their unit had captured near Samarra last month, and a fourth soldier was charged yesterday. The cases come as another investigation continues into allegations that a Marine unit gunned down as many as 24 civilians last November in Haditha.
The incidents have drawn widespread international criticism of the way U.S. troops are treating Iraqi civilians as they fight insurgents, and have caused the military to redouble efforts to remind troops of their moral and legal obligations on the battlefield. In announcing the murder charges yesterday, Col. Stewart Navarre said Marines are trained in the law of armed conflict and are expected to fully comply with it.
"The Marine Corps takes allegations of wrongdoing by Marines very seriously and is committed to thoroughly investigating such allegations," Stewart said at an afternoon news conference at Camp Pendleton, a Marine base north of San Diego. "The Marine Corps also prides itself on holding its members accountable for their actions."
Lawyers for several of the Marines and family members of the troops said yesterday that the men are innocent.
Gary Solis, a professor of the law of war at Georgetown University, said it is unfortunate that the cases have surfaced at the same time, because they provide an impression of a military run amok in Iraq. He said that fatal mistakes are common in war, and that the key to these investigations will probably be to determine whether the troops planned the alleged attacks.
"Where is the line? The line is premeditation," Solis said of wartime killings. "If you make a mistake, you're not going to be investigated. The only guys that have to be worried are those that have thought about doing it and then do it."
The eight service members charged in the Hamdaniyah incident are confined at Camp Pendleton. Stewart said four other Marines connected to the investigation are under no restrictions but could face charges in the future.
The Marine Corps identified the eight as Sgt. Lawrence G. Hutchins III, Cpl. Marshall L. Magincalda, Cpl. Trent D. Thomas, Lance Cpl. Tyler A. Jackson, Lance Cpl. Robert B. Pennington, Lance Cpl. Jerry E. Shumate Jr., Pfc. John J. Jodka and Navy Hospitalman 3rd Class Melson J. Bacos, who was attached to the Marines' unit as its medic. The four other Marines were not identified. The soldier charged yesterday in the killings near Samarra was identified as Spec. Juston R. Graber, 20.
Lawyers for the service members in the Hamdaniyah incident said yesterday that they have not had the opportunity to review much, if any, of the evidence against their clients.
"He's an all-American boy," said retired Marine Brig. Gen. David Brahms, who is representing Pennington, 21, of Washington state. "It's hard to imagine him conspiring with others to commit the dastardly deed."
Joseph Casas, a civilian lawyer representing Jodka, 20, of California, said his client believes he was taking part in a "legitimate, command-sanctioned ambush" in a location where insurgents are known to plant roadside bombs. Jodka, who was on his first tour in Iraq, was months out of boot camp.
"He does not believe that anything that happened that night was inappropriate, illegal or in contravention to Marine Corps rules," Casas said in an interview. "I will adamantly say that what the government believes happened did not happen on that night."
While the Marines have released few details about Awad's death, Iraqis who live in his neighborhood have told Washington Post reporters that the Marines shot him four times in the face before planting an AK-47 rifle and a shovel near his body to make it appear as though he had been trying to bury a roadside bomb. He was known in the village as Awad the Lame because a metal bar was inserted in his leg several years ago.
An investigative statement obtained by The Post that appears to be signed by Hutchins says that the unit "spotted a man digging on the side of the road from our ambush site." It continues: "I made the call and engaged. He was pronounced dead at the scene with only a shovel and an AK-47."
It was unclear who shot Awad. All eight service members were charged with conspiracy, murder, assault and larceny -- the last count for allegedly stealing the rifle and the shovel before using them as props. Some of the men also were charged with lying to investigators and with obstruction of justice.
Navarre declined to discuss details of the incident and stressed that the accused are presumed innocent. All could face the death penalty if convicted.
Casas, Jodka's attorney, said his client was forced to sign a statement about the events that he knew to be incorrect after Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents kept him in a room at Camp Fallujah last month for more than seven hours without food, water or breaks. He said the agents threatened Jodka with the death penalty and scared him into signing the statement.
Ed Buice, an NCIS spokesman in Washington, said that such statements are voluntary and that suspects are "given the opportunity to review the statement and make any changes to it before signing."
Reached by telephone in Massachusetts yesterday, a woman who identified herself as Hutchins's fiancee said she is standing by the sergeant, the highest-ranking member of the unit charged.
"We are heartbroken about the situation and we love him very much," she said. "We believe he is innocent."
Geis reported from Camp Pendleton. Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.