CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – Attorneys began questioning Marines who could potentially serve as jurors in the court martial of a reserve sergeant accused of kicking an Iraqi prisoner who later died.
Reserve Sgt. Gary Pittman (search) could get more than three years in a military prison if found guilty of assault and dereliction of duty in the case, the first court-martial known to be connected to the death of a prisoner in Iraq.
Pittman is accused of kicking the chest of Nagem Hatab (search), who later suffocated from a crushed windpipe. Hatab had been rumored to be an official of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party (search) and part of the ambush of a U.S. Army convoy that left 11 soldiers dead and led to the capture of Pfc. Jessica Lynch and five others.
Attorneys from both sides questioned 13 potential jurors for indications of potential bias Monday, asking whether they had seen media coverage of the case — and most had.
The lawyers asked if the potential jurors had guarded or worked with detainees, had followed separate allegations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, and about their feelings on the use of force to subdue unruly prisoners.
Pittman, 40, sat quietly as the Marines, all from this base north of San Diego, underwent questioning. Attorneys were expected to select the final panel, which could include as few as five and as many as all 13 members, by Tuesday.
The potential jurors are all officers, and were drawn from a pool of about 30 Camp Pendleton officers who filled out questionnaires. The base commander than selected the 13 based on their responses.
Hatab, 52, is among 37 Iraqi and Afghan prisoners whose deaths are being investigated. All the parties in the case were under a gag order barring them from talking to reporters.
Within two days of Hatab's arrest in June 2003, a guard found his lifeless, naked body covered in his own waste in a yard at Camp Whitehorse, a makeshift lockup outside Nasiriyah that has since been closed.
According to a fellow Marine who has been granted immunity, Pittman, who in civilian life was a federal prison guard, karate-kicked the handcuffed, hooded Hatab in the chest so hard that he flew three feet before hitting the floor.
An autopsy concluded that Hatab had seven broken ribs and slowly suffocated from a crushed windpipe. Defense lawyers say Hatab died of natural causes, perhaps from an asthma attack.
On Monday, the judge in the case, Col. Robert Chester, agreed to let a doctor testify for the defense that the markings on Hatab's body were not consistent with a kick to the chest.
A general court-martial is to begin next month for Maj. Clarke Paulus, who commanded the detention center and allegedly authorized a Marine to grab Hatab by the neck to drag him to a holding pen. Whitehorse base commander Maj. Michael Froeder faces charges of negligence and abuse of prisoners.