Camp Pendleton Marine returns to brig for 2006 killing of Iraqi
In a complex war crimes case, Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III returned Friday to the brig at Camp Pendleton, possibly to spend an additional five years behind bars for the 2006 killing of an unarmed Iraqi.
"I'm going to walk in there with my head held high," said Hutchins, who previously spent four years in custody in the case. "I love the Marine Corps; I love being a Marine. These last nine months when I was allowed to put the uniform back on and lead from the front like a Marine have been wonderful."
Hutchins, 26, has been free for nine months under an appeals court ruling on the assertion that he did not receive a fair trial because one of his attorneys was allowed to leave the case on the eve of the court martial.
When the court made that ruling, Hutchins had spent a year in pretrial confinement at the Camp Pendleton brig and an additional three years at the prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, after his 2007 conviction.
Now the court has ordered him back to prison while his attorney continues to fight for his release.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, on Tuesday rejected Hutchins' request for clemency. Terry Pennington, father of a Marine also convicted in the case, had sent a letter to Waldhauser pleading for mercy for Hutchins.
In his letter, Pennington told Waldhauser that while his son, Robert Pennington, knew his actions violated the official rules of engagement, "He'd do it again in the kill-or-be-killed province of Anbar if he thought it would save the lives of his brother Marines.... He was doing what he was taught to do. He and the others went to jail for that."
Hutchins, the squad leader, was convicted as the ringleader of a plot that ended with an Iraqi being dragged from his bed in Hamandiya, west of Baghdad, and executed. Seven others also were convicted, but none served more than 18 months.
During court-martial proceedings, the Marines testified they felt vulnerable to snipers and roadside bombs because Iraqis who were suspected of helping insurgents were often released from custody. The killing was meant as a warning to Iraqis to stop such attacks.
"I know what I did was wrong," Hutchins said Friday. "I think about it every day of my life. I was there in the palm grove and I could have stopped it."
Hutchins is scheduled for a hearing March 16 before the Naval Clemency and Parole Board, which recommended in 2009 that his 11-year sentence be reduced to five years.
But the board's ruling is only advisory for prisoners serving sentences of more than 10 years, and it was rejected by an assistant secretary for the Navy. Hutchins' attorney has calculated that with time off for good behavior, the Massachusetts native still has five years remaining on his sentence.
Hutchins became a voracious reader in prison. On Friday, as he returned to the brig, he was only allowed to bring one book: The Bible. He can receive other books only if they are sent directly from the publisher to reduce the chances of contraband.
After being freed last year, Hutchins returned to Camp Pendleton to a training billet.
It will take several weeks for officials to decide whether Hutchins will be returned to Leavenworth or sent to another brig or prison. He hopes it will be close to his family so that they can visit.
His wife, Reyna, who is pregnant, and their daughter, Kylie, 6, will remain in Oceanside.
"I've got to be a rock for them," Hutchins said. "I know how to be a good person. I know how to be a good husband and father. No general or court can take that away from me."
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-- Tony Perry in San Diego
Photo: Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III
Credit: Robert Lachmann / Los Angeles Times