CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. – A Marine who pleaded guilty Wednesday to urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan will likely be demoted one rank under a plea agreement, although a military judge called for a much harsher sentence.
Staff Sgt. Edward W. Deptola pleaded guilty to multiple charges at court-martial, including dereliction of duty for desecrating remains, posing for photographs with the corpses and failing to properly supervise junior Marines.
The judge, Lt. Col Nicole Hudspeth, would have sentenced him to six months confinement, a $5,000 fine, demotion to private and a bad-conduct discharge. But she is bound by terms of the plea agreement the sergeant reached with military prosecutors. A general will review the sentence and could choose to lower it.
Deptola and another Marine based at Camp LeJeune were charged last year after video surfaced showing four Marines in full combat gear urinating on the bodies of three dead Afghans in July 2011. In the video, one of the Marines looked down at the bodies and quipped, "Have a good day, buddy."
Deptola was sergeant for a scout sniper platoon at the time. Though he had been previously deployed overseas, he was on his only combat deployment at the time. The Southold, N.Y., native is married with two children, but military officials declined to give his age.
The sergeant admitted to the judge that he urinated on the corpses and posed in the "trophy photographs." He said he failed to supervise the Marines under him when the desecration began, even though he had been briefed that such behavior violated a Marine Corps general order.
"I was in a position to stop it and I did not ... I should have spoken up on the spot," he said.
When asked by the judge why he did it, Deptola said "I have no excuse, no reason, ma'am ... it was not the correct way to handle a human casualty."
The sergeant described the day of the incident, saying the platoon had seen heavy action and had 11 confirmed kills, including the three men who were desecrated. Deptola said another sergeant in the platoon had been killed earlier that day by an IED, and the Marines believed the heavily armed Taliban fighters they killed could have been responsible for it.
Deptola's African-American defense attorney, Maj. Tracey Holtshirley, called the case a "lynching" by the media and general public for an isolated mistake by a well-regarded Marine. He argued Deptola had already been punished enough by the attention and being removed from his platoon. He said he should be demoted two ranks to corporal.
Other Marines involved have negotiated lower sentences. Staff Sgt. Joseph W. Chamblin pleaded guilty to similar charges last month. Under a deal reached before his court-martial, he lost $500 in pay and was reduced in rank to sergeant. Three other Marines were given administrative punishments for their roles.
The urination video surfaced on YouTube around the same time as other incidents that infuriated many Afghans. American troops were caught up in controversies over burning Muslim holy books, posing for photos with insurgents' bloodied remains and an alleged massacre of 16 Afghan villagers by a soldier.
The Marine Corps said the urination took place during a counterinsurgency operation in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province, located in the south of the country.
The United States now has 66,000 troops in Afghanistan. The U.S. and its NATO allies agreed in November 2010 that they would withdraw all their combat troops by the end of 2014, but they haven't decided on the scope of future missions in the country and the size of any residual force remaining after that.