CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – Lawyers for some of the seven Marines and a Navy medic charged with murdering an Iraqi man are questioning the credibility of their Iraqi accusers, suggesting they may have been motivated by money or sympathy for the insurgents.
The defense attorneys said they will also try to get the troops' incriminating statements thrown out.
The lawyers are starting to put together their strategy now that they have been given copies of the Pentagon's investigation into the April 26 killing of Hashim Ibrahim Awad in Hamdania. Authorities say Awad was kidnapped from his home and shot during a search for insurgents.
The Pentagon began investigating Awad's death after his relatives and other Iraqis reported the killing. The Pentagon paid the family an undisclosed amount as compensation for the death, a fairly common practice when noncombatants are killed.
Defense attorneys Jeremiah Sullivan III and David Brahms said money could have been a motivation. They also said it is possible the relatives are sympathetic to the insurgents.
"What better way to undercut the American presence and to embarrass the Americans than to say this horrible act occurred and that these Marines without hesitation and in cold blood mowed down this disabled guy?" said Brahms, who represents Marine Lance Cpl. Robert Pennington. The lawyer said he wants to know whether U.S. authorities have any intelligence files on the tipsters.
Sullivan, who represents Navy Corpsman 3rd Class Melson J. Bacos, said: "Money is a motivating factor for the families. Word gets out quick when you hear you can get money from the government."
Jane Siegel, a former Marine Corps colonel, prosecutor and judge defending Pfc. John Jodka III, questioned why it took at least four days for the relatives to report the death to the Marines.
"If you had your brother's body turned over and it was all shot up, wouldn't you at least start with the people who are handing it over to you and say, `What happened here?"' Siegel said.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which conducted the investigation, did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment.
NCIS investigators claim that, without provocation, the troops seized Awad, tied him up, put him in a hole and shot him. The troops are accused of placing an AK-47 in his hands and putting a shovel in the hole to make it appear Awad was planting explosives. All could get the death penalty if convicted.
The troops all signed incriminating statements, Siegel said. She and Brahms said they will seek to have them thrown out on the grounds the information was coerced.
"When you put two NCIS agents in a room with a little 19-year-old kid and threaten him with the death penalty and call him a (expletive) liar for 2 1/2 hours and only give him water after he has signed the statement that's been typed by an NCIS agent, I think that's coercive," Siegel said. "I don't think you arrive at the truth that way; I think you arrive at whatever it is NCIS wants to arrive at."
Gary D. Solis, a former Marine Corps prosecutor and judge who teaches the laws of war at Georgetown University, said the chances of getting all eight statements thrown out "are so remote it's hard for me to conceive of it."
In a case with eight defendants and at least 17 defense lawyers, Solis said it is more likely one of the troops will cooperate with prosecutors in return for the charges being dropped or the penalty reduced.
Through their lawyers and families, all the troops have denied any wrongdoing. Brahms, Siegel and other lawyers have pointed to their clients' clean records and distinguished military service and say that will also be part of their defense.
"This charge is totally at odds with everything we know about" Pennington, Brahms said.
The next legal step is an Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a grand jury, where the prosecution will outline its case. That hearing was slated for Wednesday but was tentatively rescheduled for the end of July at the request of defense attorneys, who asked for more time to plow through the government's evidence.
Among that evidence is a preliminary autopsy conducted by military pathologists at Dover Air Force Base, Del. It confirmed Awad died of multiple gunshot wounds. Victor Kelley, who represents Marine Cpl. Trent Thomas, said he would file a request that the defense be allowed to hire its own experts to examine the body.