SAN DIEGO – SAN DIEGO (AP) — A Marine sergeant accused of killing an unarmed Iraqi man in a major war crimes case will return to his unit now that he has been released from a military jail, a Marine Corps spokesman said Tuesday.
Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III walked out of the brig at Camp Pendleton on Monday after a military judge determined he is not a flight risk while his case is being appealed.
Hutchins' murder conviction was overturned in April by a military appeals court in Washington, D.C., that said he was given an unfair trial in 2007. However, the Navy is appealing the ruling and prosecutors wanted to keep Hutchins in confinement during that process.
The case is now in the hands of a higher court, which can affirm or reverse the April ruling. That decision may not come until early next year.
In the meantime, the Marine will return to the 1st Marine Division unit at Camp Pendleton, Marine Corps spokesman Gunnery Sgt. Christian Harding said Tuesday. He did not have details of what Hutchins' job will entail but said he would not be deployed because of the proceedings.
Attorneys for the government have said Hutchins led a squad of seven troops who dragged Hashim Ibrahim Awad, 52, from his home in the Iraqi village of Hamdania in 2006 and killed him. They then planted a shovel and AK-47 to make it appear he was an insurgent, according to the prosecutors.
Hutchins, 26, had been serving an 11-year sentence. The others in his squad served less than 18 months.
"I'm going to be the best Marine I can be today," an elated Hutchins told The Associated Press in a phone interview after being released. "Today is really a surreal experience. I think we had a good judge. ... It's hard to describe exactly what I'm feeling. I'm happy."
Defense attorney Capt. Babu Kaza said two Marines from Hutchins' command picked him up from the brig in a duty van and drove him to a Taco Bell on the base for his first dinner after serving four years in a prison in Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. Kaza and a fellow attorney followed in their cars.
The U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals in Washington ruled in April that Hutchins was not given a fair trial because his lead defense lawyer left the case shortly before the 2007 trial. The ruling was a major blow for the government's prosecution of Iraqi war crimes.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces will hear arguments from the prosecution and defense this fall before making its decision.
Kaza, argued that the married father of a 5-year-old girl was not a flight risk or a threat to society. Prosecutors could not be reached for comment after the hearing Monday nor on Tuesday.
Hutchins, of Plymouth, Mass., said he called his family immediately after the judge's decision to tell them the news. He planned to call his daughter, Kylie, next.
"I'm going to tell her she's my little princess, of course," Hutchins said.
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 was initially sentenced to 14 years but that was later reduced.
Hutchins has said he was not with his squad at the time and members of his squad told him they had killed an insurgent leader. Hutchins said he did not learn of the mistake until after the investigation.
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 could be applied toward any new sentence.
Another option is the court could decide to keep the conviction but rule that Hutchins should be given a new sentencing hearing. If the court reinstates his conviction and sentence, Hutchins can appeal to the military's supreme court.