CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – A Marine reservist was found guilty Thursday of dereliction of duty and the abuse of prisoners last year at a makeshift detention camp in Iraq, but cleared of assaulting a 52-year-old Iraqi man who later died there.
Marine Sgt. Gary Pittman (search)'s wife cried as the military jury's verdict was read following four hours of deliberation. Pittman, wearing a khaki-and-green uniform adorned with his service ribbons, stood without reaction.
Pittman, 40, a federal prison guard in New York in his civilian life, was acquitted of the most serious charge, of karate-kicking 52-year-old Nagem Hatab in the chest shortly before the Iraqi was found dead in a dusty yard at the facility known as Camp Whitehorse (search).
An autopsy found Hatab had six broken ribs, as well as several deep bruises, and apparently died from suffocation caused by a broken bone in his throat.
Pittman embraced his wife and defense attorney before leaving the courtroom accompanied by his brother, an Army major. He didn't stop to speak with reporters.
The jury was to begin sentencing deliberations on Friday. Pittman could receive up nine months in a military prison and a bad-conduct discharge.
Pittman took the stand Wednesday and testified that he never assaulted a prisoner. He was one of the only witnesses to say that he saw no abuse at Camp Whitehorse.
Three other witnesses testified they saw Pittman punch, knee and kick prisoners, including a local Muslim cleric, as well as Hatab and other unnamed prisoners. Others said Pittman used force only in response to inmate aggression.
The prosecutor, Maj. Leon Francis, told jurors the case was basically a "whodunnit," requiring them to sift through a contradictory mix of lies and half-truths from the Camp Whitehorse guards, most from a New York-based reserve unit, who spray-painted the word "terror dome" on the building where the guards were housed.
"In the ... terror dome, there are no angels as witnesses," Francis said. "When it came to Mr. Hatab and the prisoners that were abused there, it was hell on Earth."
John Tranberg, Pittman's civilian defense attorney, countered that Pittman and other reservist guards were thrust into a war zone in order to run an enemy prisoner-of-war camp with no training and almost no support. They used only the force necessary to handle the Arabic-speaking rapists and murderers who were also held at Camp Whitehorse, Tranberg said.
"If you've got to grab somebody by the back of the neck to move them is that a strike? Technically, is it excessive force? No," Tranberg said.
Francis acknowledged the Marines were in a war zone and that prisoners should not be treated "with kid gloves." But beating detainees without provocation for retribution or to show dominance, as several witnesses testified, "is not even close to necessary force," the prosecutor said.
Pfc. William Roy, the prosecution's star witness and a direct subordinate of Pittman, was portrayed by the defense as a liar out to save his own hide.
Roy, who accepted a demotion as part of a plea deal, said he and Pittman were angry at Hatab because they believed he sold a rifle taken during the ambush of a U.S. Army convoy that killed 11 soldiers and led to the capture of Pfc. Jessica Lynch and others.
The prosecution said Roy's account of how the fierce beating that he said he and Pittman gave Hatab was full of detail that made it believable. According to Roy, Hatab said in English "Why? Why? Why? No. No. My children. My children."
Roy acknowledged that he once grabbed Hatab by the throat, and there was testimony that another guard dragged Hatab 40 feet by his neck to an outside holding area because a bout of diarrhea had left Hatab covered in feces.
A general court-martial is scheduled to begin later this month for Maj. Clarke Paulus, who allegedly ordered Hatab dragged. Whitehorse base commander Maj. Michael Froeder faces charges of negligence and abuse of prisoners.