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Marine shot innocent iraqi in head 3 times { February 27 2007 }

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Federal agent testifies Marine said he shot Iraqi man in head
By Thomas Watkins, Associated Press Writer | February 27, 2007

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. --A Marine squad leader accused of kidnapping and murdering an Iraqi told investigators he fired three shots into the man's head while performing a "dead check," a government agent testified Tuesday.

Special Agent James Connolly testified at a hearing for Sgt. Lawrence G. Hutchins III, of Plymouth, Mass., the leader of an eight-man squad accused in the attack on 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Awad last April.

"Hutchins said that he put three rounds in the guy's head," Connolly testified. "I was kind of taken aback."

Connolly said Hutchins volunteered the information as the two men walked the scene of the shooting. At that time, Hutchins was not under suspicion and Connolly said he was looking for evidence to corroborate the Marine's account that the killing was lawful.

A Marine spokesman would not comment on when it is acceptable to perform a dead check on a suspected insurgent.

Initially, Hutchins and his squad told Connolly and other Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents they'd been on patrol in the town of Hamdania, near Fallujah, the night of April 25-26. They said some time after midnight, they saw an Iraqi man walking along the road carrying an AK-47 and a shovel.

Suspecting him to be an insurgent about to dig a hole to plant a bomb, several of the Marines opened fire, according to initial statements.

But local Iraqis and family members complained that Awad was dragged from his house and murdered. Connolly said Marine higher-ups initially told him they thought death had been a "good shoot," or a lawful killing, and that local Iraqis and family members were lying to receive compensation.

Still, the Marines were keen to conduct a thorough investigation, Connolly testified. Highly publicized probes into a separate incident, where a different squad was suspected of killing up to 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha on Nov. 19 2005, made Marines concerned "the right things were done" in investigating Awad's killing, the agent said.

Four enlisted Camp Pendleton Marines were eventually charged with unpremeditated murder in the Haditha deaths, and four officers are accused of failing to adequately report the crimes. Pretrial hearings are expected to begin next month.

Connolly said he only realized something was wrong with Hutchins' account when the Navy corpsman attached to the squad, Melson J. Bacos, told agents a very different version of events: that the squad, unable to find an Iraqi insurgent they suspected of planting bombs, kidnapped Awad and killed him instead.

Seven members of the squad including Hutchins went on to give incriminating statements, prosecutors say. Four Marines and Bacos have pleaded guilty to reduced charges in the case. They have said Hutchins masterminded the killing, and several said he fired the fatal shots.

Cpl. Trent D. Thomas previously testified that unit members opened fire on Awad before Hutchins went to make sure he was dead. Thomas initially pleaded guilty to murder but withdrew the plea ahead of his sentencing.

The government called Connolly as a witness in response to a defense motion to suppress the alleged statements by Hutchins during his upcoming court-martial.

Hutchins' civilian attorney, Rich Brannon, recently traveled with other attorneys to Iraq to try to investigate the death. But dangerous conditions hampered the effort.

The lawyers' trip to Hamdania and comments suggest a potential trial strategy -- that of convincing a jury that Awad was an insurgent and the Marines were justified in their actions.

Joseph Low, an attorney for Cpl. Marshall Magincalda, who faces murder and kidnapping charges, said the government had classified information about Awad's past, and he intended to file a motion to allow that evidence in court.

Squad members have testified that Awad was forced into a hole and shot, and that the squad then tried to cover it up by placing an AK-47 and shovel by his body to make it look like he was an insurgent planting a bomb.

Hutchins' hearing was to continue Wednesday. Thomas is scheduled to be rearraigned on murder and other charges on Thursday.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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