CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – Marine Cpl. Trent Thomas took a risk by backing out of a plea agreement to face trial on charges he kidnapped an Iraqi man from his home and murdered him after failing to find a suspected insurgent.
The gamble paid off somewhat in that Thomas, 25, was acquitted of premeditated murder for which the mandatory sentence is life in prison.
However, he was found guilty of kidnapping and conspiracy, charges that could still send him to prison for the rest of his life. A military jury on Thursday was to consider a sentence and could opt for something substantially less than the maximum — there is no minimum sentence for conspiracy and kidnapping.
"The bottom line is, the government was requiring that he plead guilty to murder, and he's been found not guilty of murder," said Thomas' attorney, Victor Kelley. "Now that the mandatory minimum of life is off the table, the panel has a great deal of flexibility and I think they will do what is appropriate."
The Madison, Ill., Marine also was found not guilty of making a false official statement, housebreaking and larceny.
Prosecutors said that during a nighttime patrol on April 26, 2006, Thomas' squad hatched a plan to kidnap and kill a suspected insurgent from his house. When they couldn't find him, they instead kidnapped a man identified by prosecutors as Hashim Ibrahim Awad, a retired policeman and father of 11 who lived nearby.
Squad members tried to cover up the killing by placing a shovel and AK-47 by his body to make it look like he was an insurgent planting a bomb, the charges allege.
Thomas was the senior corporal in the squad and a fireteam leader.
Thomas was the first member of his squad to take his case to trial. Four other Marines and a Navy corpsman pleaded guilty to reduced charges in exchange for their testimony and received between one and eight years in the brig. Two other Marines face trial.
Thomas agreed in January to plead guilty to unpremeditated murder, kidnapping, conspiracy and other charges. The terms of his pretrial agreement were not disclosed, but included a cap on prison time.
He stunned the court by withdrawing his guilty plea on the eve of sentencing in February.
During the court-martial, Thomas' attorneys argued he was following orders from his squad leader. Thomas did not address the court.
The jury of three officers and six enlisted Marines deliberated his case for about five hours; their decision was announced Wednesday. Military juries require two-thirds majority to convict.
The final terms of Thomas' punishment will be subject to review by Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the commanding general overseeing the case.
Courts-martial have been scheduled for the two Marines remaining in the case — Cpl. Marshall L. Magincalda on Friday and of squad leader Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III next week.