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Government appeals military court's overturning of Marine's conviction in Iraqi war crime case

SAN DIEGO (AP) — The Navy announced Monday that it is appealing a military court's decision to overturn the murder conviction of a Camp Pendleton Marine in a major Iraqi war crimes case.

The Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps sent the case of Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, which can either affirm or reverse the April ruling of the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals that threw out Hutchins' conviction.

The criminal appeals court said Hutchins was not given a fair trial because a judge allowed his lead defense attorney to leave shortly before his 2007 trial after working on the case for three years. The ruling marked a major blow to the military's prosecution of U.S. troops accused of killing unarmed Iraqis.

Monday's decision by the Navy comes despite the fact a senior legal adviser to the admiral recommended the government not appeal.

The adviser, Col. Peter Collins, wrote in his recommendation to the Navy Judge Advocate General that the higher military court's ruling "is unlikely to result in a positive result for the government."

"The attorney's conduct in this case was not in the best interest of the client," Collins said in his written opinion. "The military judge failed to consider the issue. The facts are that the client lost a member of his defense team three weeks before his murder trial with no warning and no turnover to the substitute counsel."

Defense attorney Capt. Babu Kaza is seeking the release of Hutchins, who has been serving an 11-year sentence.

Hutchins remains in the brig at Camp Pendleton. Kaza said a hearing has been set for June 14 to decide whether he can be released while his case is under review.

"This is a politically motivated abuse of the military justice system," Kaza said. "Simply looking at the merits of the case, they don't have a leg to stand on."

The Marine Corps declined to comment.

Prosecutors say Hutchins led a squad of six other Marines and a Navy corpsman who dragged a 52-year-old man from his home in the Iraqi village of Hamdania in 2006, put him in a ditch and shot him, then planted a shovel and AK-47 to make it appear as if he were an insurgent planting an explosive.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told the Marine Corps Times last year that he believes Hutchins was the ringleader in the premeditated murder plot and attempted cover-up, and that he should complete the full sentence.

Hutchins said he was not with his squad at the time. He said they told him they had killed an insurgent leader, and he did not learn of the mistake until after the investigation.

Hutchins, 26, has spent nearly four years in prison. The others in his squad served less than 18 months.

The criminal appeals court ruled that the military judge in charge of the case should have considered denying the request by Hutchins' lead defense attorney, who was finishing his active duty.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces faces several options: It can reverse the lower court's ruling and reinstate the conviction and sentence — or it can affirm it and send the case to Camp Pendleton, where the general can order a new trial. The time Hutchins has spent in jail can be applied toward his new sentence if he gets one.

Another option is the court could decide to keep his conviction but rule that he should be given a new sentencing hearing.

If the court reinstates his conviction and sentence, Hutchins can appeal to the military's supreme court.

The Navy has 30 days to present its arguments to the court, which is expected to listen to the arguments from both sides in September.

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