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Actions Highlight Power of Pendleton General to Decide War-Crime Cases

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- In recent months, the senior Marine commander on the West Coast has dismissed charges against three troops implicated in the deaths of 24 Iraqis and reduced the sentences of three others in the kidnapping and murder of an Iraqi man.

Lt. Gen. James Mattis' actions in two of the war's highest-profile criminal cases underscore one of the wildcards in the military justice system: the sweeping powers of a commanding general to decide the fate of those accused of war crimes.

Mattis, who commands the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton in Southern California, decided who was charged, who got immunity, who will stand trial and, in the case of convictions, whether clemency should be granted.

His decisions were cheered by those who believe the troops were pursued unfairly by overzealous military prosecutors. But critics said the moves reflected how the justice system is tilted toward the accused, particularly in cases arising from battlefield actions.

Tom Donnelly, a security analyst specializing in defense issues at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said Mattis' rulings are rooted in his wartime experience, which includes back-to-back visits to Afghanistan and Iraq.

"He's a Marine's Marine," Donnelly said. "He would well understand the individual pressures that any solider or Marine would be subject to in fighting in an irregular conflict."

Mattis' spokesman, Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, said the general had spent many months in Iraq's Al Anbar province since 2003.

"This (war) is tough and he recognizes that," Hughes said. Mattis is currently in Iraq and was unavailable for comment.

Mattis' combat views have pushed him into the public eye before. In 2005, speaking in San Diego, he said: "It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right upfront with you, I like brawling."

He was told by the commandant of the Marine Corps to choose his words more carefully, but was not disciplined.

Gary Solis, a former Marine Corps prosecutor and judge who teaches law of war at Georgetown University Law Center, said the general is uniquely positioned to understand Marines accused of crimes.

"Of course he has sympathy for them," Solis said. "The question is whether that sympathy extends to being a critical factor in releasing them."

In the first case, eight men were charged with murder or dereliction of duty in the deaths of 24 civilians in Haditha. In the other case, seven Marines and a Navy corpsman were accused of kidnapping and murdering an Iraqi man in Hamdania.

The Haditha victims died when a Marine squad launched a house-to-house assault following a roadside bomb blast that killed a Marine driver.

Of four enlisted Marines accused of murder, Mattis let prosecutors drop charges against Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz and give him immunity to testify.

Mattis last week dismissed charges against another rifleman, Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, and a Marine lawyer, Capt. Randy Stone, after officers who reviewed evidence recommended against sending them to courts-martial.

In his decision to dismiss charges against Sharratt, Mattis acknowledged the challenges faced by Marines in Iraq.

"Our nation is fighting a shadowy enemy who hides among the innocent people, does not comply with any aspect of the law of war and routinely draws fire toward civilians," Mattis wrote.

In the Hamdania case, seven Marines and a Navy corpsman were accused of kidnapping the Iraqi man, marching him to a ditch and fatally shooting him.

Five of them pleaded guilty to reduced charges; the others were convicted.

Mattis last week freed three junior squad members. He said in a statement that he did so out of a sense of fairness - two corporals who were convicted at courts-martial were given no extra prison time and freed by military juries.

Only the squad leader, Sgt. Lawrence G. Hutchins III, who was convicted of unpremeditated murder, remains in prison. Mattis met with him last week but took no action to reduce his 15-year sentence.

Hutchins' congressman, Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., recently appealed to Mattis for clemency.

Spokesman Hughes described Mattis as a scholar who has "more books than furniture," many of which deal with warfare, history and Middle Eastern culture. Mattis was born in Seattle in 1950 and joined the Marines in 1972.

Solis described Mattis as "one of the finest combat leaders" in the U.S. military but said the general's recent actions could send a mixed message.

"On the one hand, he has been aggressive in prosecuting, on the other, he has been merciful in assessing the judgments that result from the prosecution," Solis said.

Generals frequently cut sentences, Solis said.

For instance, the general overseeing the prosecution of Army Lt. William Calley, who in 1971 was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai, reduced Calley's sentence to 20 years.

Calley ultimately served only six weeks in the brig and three years under house arrest.

The Marines who had their sentences reduced were not pardoned. They will still have felony records.

"That will follow them for the rest of their lives," Solis said.

Tim Lynch, an attorney for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said Mattis' actions might reflect an institutional bias of Marines looking after their own. He said a similar phenomenon is sometimes seen in police forces.

"When there's an officer-involved shooting, they bend over backward to give him the benefit of all doubt," Lynch said. "It is the same in the military."

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