Friday, July 20, 2007
CAMP PENDLETON — A Marine convicted of kidnapping and conspiring to murder an Iraqi man, who was killed by troops looking for an insurgent, will not serve a prison term, a military jury decided Friday.
Cpl. Trent Thomas was sentenced to a bad-conduct discharge and a reduction in rank to private, which carries lower pay. He could have received life in prison for his role in the April 2006 killing of Hashim Ibrahim Awad, a 52-year-old retired Iraqi policeman in the village of Hamdania. He spent about 14 months in a military jail awaiting trial.
Thomas was among seven Marines and a Navy corpsman accused of snatching 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.
A military jury of three officers and six enlisted Marines deliberated Thomas' sentence for less than an hour before returning their 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 pay and rank and forfeiture.
Thomas' attorneys argued that he 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 returned to active duty.
Thomas, who was told to check out of the jail where he has been held since May 2006, held his toddler daughter tightly and kissed her hands.
He declined to answer reporters' questions about the night of killing, saying he believed they "did what we needed to do save Marines' lives."
"I think anybody who understands what war is, or what combat is, understands."
Thomas, the senior corporal in the squad and a fireteam leader, was the first member of his squad to take his case to trial.
Four other Marines and the sailor pleaded guilty to reduced charges in exchange for testimony. A lance corporal who admitted to kidnapping and conspiracy — the same charges Thomas was convicted of — received the harshest sentence by plea, eight years and dishonorable discharge.
Thomas agreed in January to plead guilty to unpremeditated murder, kidnapping, conspiracy and other charges. The terms of his pretrial agreement included an undisclosed cap on prison time.
He stunned the court by withdrawing his guilty plea on the eve of sentencing in February and going to court-martial on the more severe charge of premeditated murder.
Tom Umberg, a former military prosecutor, called Thomas' punishment "pretty outrageous."
"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."
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 revise the sentence downward.
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.