Judge Releases Marine at Center of Iraqi War Crimes Case

June 15, 2010 - 5:55 AM
Monday's surprise decision to release Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins deals another blow to the government's prosecution of U.S. troops accused of killing unarmed Iraqis.
Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins

Marine Corps Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III of Plymouth, Mass., at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in California in December 2006. Monday's surprise decision by a military judge to release Hutchins while a higher court reviews his case deals another blow to the government's prosecution of U.S. troops accused of killing unarmed Iraqis. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy, File)

San Diego (AP) - A military judge has allowed a Marine sergeant convicted of murder in one of the biggest war crimes cases to emerge from the Iraq war to walk free, nearly two months after a military appeals court ruled he had an unfair trial.
 
Monday's surprise decision to release Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins 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 killed a 52-year-old man in the Iraqi village of Hamdania in 2006, and 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."
 
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. The ruling is being appealed by the Navy.
 
Hutchins' defense 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. Kaza said he and Hutchins, both Roman Catholics, prayed with a rosary at Monday's hearing before the judge announced his decision.
 
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 for dinner after leaving Camp Pendleton.
 
He'll be allowed to remain free while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces decides whether to affirm or overturn the Washington court's ruling. The court is expected to hear arguments from both sides this fall and could take until next year to make a decision.
 
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.
 
If the court rules in his favor, Hutchins 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.