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Marine from Camp Pendleton set for parole hearing in murder of Iraqi

January 6, 2010 |  8:57 am

Marine  A Marine from Camp Pendleton, the last of eight squad members still behind bars for the 2006 murder of an unarmed Iraqi civilian in Hamandiya, is set for a parole hearing today.

The Naval Clemency and Parole Board will hear the appeal of Lawrence Hutchins III, convicted in 2007 as the ringleader in dragging an Iraqi from his home and pumping 11 bullets into him as a warning to insurgents to stop planting roadside bombs to kill Americans.

Hutchins, then a sergeant, was the squad leader. None of the other seven squad members -- six Marines and a Navy corpsman -- served more than 16 months in the brig at Camp Pendleton or Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego.

Hutchins, of Plymouth, Mass., is serving an 11-year sentence at the military prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan.

The same board last year recommended clemency for Hutchins, who is now 25. But the recommendation was rejected by Assistant Navy Secretary Harvey Barnum Jr.

"These acts represented a significant departure from the conduct expected of a Marine, no matter how dire the situation or circumstances," Barnum wrote.

This year, Hutchins is eligible for either clemency or parole. With the change in administration, there is also a different assistant secretary of the Navy involved in the case.

Hutchins' lawyer, Marine Capt. Babu Kaza, argues that Hutchins' crimes were the result of a "failed command" structure that seemed to endorse unauthorized killings.

In a letter to the board, Hutchins says he now knows that his actions were wrong. But he asked the five board members to remember the situation in Hamandiya in 2006: Roadside bombs were killing and maiming Marines, and the porous Iraqi criminal justice system could not find and convict those responsible.

"It is difficult to recreate the mindset I had when I was in Iraq," Hutchins wrote. "My desire to bring my Marines home alive outweighed my moral high ground and I believed if (suspected insurgent) Saleh Gowad was not eliminated, I'd be zipping up the body bags of my men or coming home in one myself."

Unable to find Gowad, several squad members took another man from his home. After he was thrown into a hole and killed, squad members attempted to convince authorities that he had died in a firefight. The conspiracy was quickly discovered.

Hutchins was not present when the victim was pulled from his home. In fact, he insisted later that he thought the squad had found their original target, Gowad. A court-martial jury at Camp Pendleton found him not guilty of the "random" selection charge but guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and of unpremeditated murder.

In the months that followed the late-night killing, attacks against Marines decreased, according to Marine brass.

Hutchins' parents are set to testify at the hearing at the Navy Yard in Washington.

Bing West, former assistant secretary of Defense and author of three books about Marines in Iraq, has submitted a letter on Hutchins' behalf. To keep Hutchins in prison while the others are free is unfair and detrimental to the morale of Marines in the field, West wrote.

"The [Marine] Corps deviated from its core principle of equality of justice," he wrote. "It pinned all the blame on the squad leader at the lowest level -- Hutchins -- and let the platoon, company and battalion commanders walk."

The board's recommendation and the decision of Assistant Navy Secretary Juan Garcia is not expected to be known for several weeks.

-- Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: Lawrence Hutchins III during his court-martial at Camp Pendleton in 2007. Credit: Associated Press

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