Marine Spared Prison Time in Iraqi Death

The Associated Press
Friday, July 20, 2007; 6:22 PM

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- A military jury that convicted a Marine of kidnapping and conspiracy to murder decided Friday not to send him to prison for his role in killing an Iraqi civilian targeted after troops failed to abduct a suspected insurgent.

Cpl. Trent Thomas was sentenced to a bad-conduct discharge and a reduction in rank to private. He could have received life in prison for his role in the April 2006 killing of the retired Iraqi policeman in the village of Hamdania.

Thomas held his toddler daughter tightly and kissed her hands outside the courtroom. He was told to check out of the brig where he has been held since May 2006, and told one of his lawyers, "I'm already packed."

Thomas, of Madison, Ill., was among seven Marines and a Navy corpsman accused of snatching 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Awad from his house, marching him to a nearby ditch and shooting him after they botched an attempt to capture a suspected insurgent.

Prosecutors said squad members tried to cover up the killing by planting a shovel and AK-47 by Awad's body to make it look like he was an insurgent planting a bomb.

"I believe we did what we needed to do to save Marines' lives," Thomas said outside court, while declining to discuss the details of what happened that night. "I think anybody who understands what war is or what combat is understands."

A military jury of three officers and six enlisted Marines deliberated Thomas' sentence for less than an hour before returning its decision.

On Wednesday, the jury convicted Thomas, 25, of kidnapping and conspiracy and acquitted him of other charges, including the most serious, premeditated murder.

Prosecutors had recommended Thomas be sentenced to 15 years in prison with a dishonorable discharge, reduction in rank and a fine.

Thomas' attorneys argued that their client was only following orders from his squad leader and asked that he be credited for the 519 days he has already served in the brig and be returned to active duty.

"We failed him as a Marine Corps, because under good leadership, this Marine would not be here today," Maj. Haytham Faraj told the court. "Consider where the responsibility lies."

Thomas had agreed in January to plead guilty in the case, but withdrew the guilty pleas on the eve of sentencing in February. His attorney, Victor Kelley, said that pretrial agreement had called for 12 years in prison.

"I was going to take a deal for 12 years because my lawyer said it was in my best interest, but then my lawyers called me back and said, 'We're going to fight this,'" Thomas said Friday. "That was all I needed."

On Thursday, Thomas told the court he wanted to continue serving.

"I've never been good at anything until I came to the Marine Corps," said Thomas, who served three combat tours in Iraq and was awarded a Purple Heart for the 2004 siege on Fallujah. "It's pretty obvious Michael Jordan was meant to play basketball. Tiger Woods was meant to play golf. The Marine Corps, it's me."

The final terms of Thomas' punishment are subject to review by Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the commanding general overseeing the case, but he can only reduce the sentence.

Four other Marines and the sailor charged pleaded guilty to reduced charges in exchange for testimony. A court-martial began Friday in a Camp Pendleton courtroom for Thomas' squadmate Cpl. Marshall L. Magincalda. Proceedings are scheduled to begin next week in the case of squad leader Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III. Both are charged with murder, kidnapping, conspiracy and other offenses.

Tom Umberg, a former military prosecutor, called Thomas' punishment "pretty outrageous" and suggested the jurors might have been swayed by their own combat experiences.

"I have never heard of a court-martial that convicted someone of conspiracy to murder and kidnapping and not adjudicate some kind of (prison) sentence," Umberg said. "Obviously there was some sympathy, maybe even empathy, because all of the panel members had served in Iraq."

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