Navy Corpsman to Testify Against Marines Accused of Kidnapping, Killing Iraqi Civilian in Hamdania

When allegations of a wartime murder surface, an eye witness can be a prosecutor's most effective weapon in securing a conviction.

Getting such testimony can be difficult because those in the armed services are often unwilling to testify against their comrades. But defense attorneys say that on Friday, one will.

Lawyers for Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Melson J. Bacos, a 21-year-old from Franklin, Wis., said he will testify at a general court martial at Camp Pendleton about seven Marines' roles in the kidnapping and murder of an Iraqi man in return for having charges against him dropped.

Under the deal, the corpsman will also plead guilty to two additional charges, his lawyer said, declining to elaborate.

"We have reached an agreement with the government which will take Bacos out of harm's way," attorney Jeremiah Sullivan III told The Associated Press Wednesday. "He is innocent of these murder charges and they are being dismissed and rightfully so."

Bacos was a medic who patrolled with the Marine squad that allegedly kidnapped and murdered 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Awad last April in the town of Hamdania. All eight were charged with crimes including premeditated murder and kidnapping.

Marine Lt. Col. Scott Jack, Bacos's military attorney, also declined to elaborate on the deal, but said: "It is a very beneficial agreement for Bacos, and gives him an extremely bright future."

Marine spokesman Lt. Col. Sean Gibson said it would be inappropriate to comment on any potential negotiations between the accused and the prosecution.

The deal gives prosecutors an opportunity to present evidence from a soldier himself, rather than just relying on the word of the soldiers' Iraqi accusers, who defense lawyers have suggested may have been motivated by money or sympathy for insurgents.

The plea deal came as two of the Marines charged in the case, Pfc. John J. Jodka III and Cpl. Marshall L. Magincalda, pleaded not guilty at their arraignment Wednesday.

The arraignment for a third Marine is expected next week and preliminary hearings for the others are expected in coming weeks.

Besides murder and kidnapping, Jodka and Magincalda also are charged with conspiracy and housebreaking. Jodka also faces an assault charge and Magincalda is additionally charged with larceny and making a false official statement. All eight troops have been in the brig since May.

Jodka, 20, and Magincalda, 23, face up to life in prison if convicted. The commanding general in the case last week ruled that the two and a third Marine, Lance Cpl. Jerry E. Shumate, should not face the death penalty.

Jodka is accused of firing an automatic weapon at Awad, along with four other troops alleged to have opened fire.

Some of the troops, including Magincalda, are accused of stealing an AK-47 assault rifle and a shovel and placing them in the hole with Awad's body, apparently to make it look like he was an insurgent planting a bomb.

Bacos, the Navy corpsman, was accused of firing the AK-47 in the air, and Magincalda of placing the expended shell casings by Awad's body.

Since the start of the Iraq war in 2003, at least 14 members of the U.S. military have been convicted in connection with the deaths of Iraqis. Two received sentences of up to life in prison, while most others were given little or no jail time.

Jodka's trial date was set for March 5 and Magincalda's for Feb. 1.