Sun, Oct 08, 2006 - Page 7 News List

US Navy corpsman gets one year in jail

PLEA BARGAIN Despite pleading guilty, a soldier who stood by while his squad murdered an unarmed Iraqi man could be out of jail in as little as five months

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , CAMP PENDLETON, CALIFORNIA

Navy Petty Officer Third Class Melson Bacos, center, is escorted into his court-martial hearing by his defense attorneys on Friday.

PHOTO: AP

A Navy hospital corpsman who watched seven members of his Marine squad repeatedly shoot an unarmed Iraqi in the head and chest in April was sentenced on Friday to one year in prison.

Petty Officer Third Class Melson Bacos, 21, pleaded guilty to modified charges of conspiracy and kidnapping, but avoided the charge of murder and a possible death sentence by agreeing to cooperate with prosecutors and testify against members of his squad.

The judge said he would have sentenced Bacos to 10 years in prison and a dishonorable discharge were it not for the plea agreement. With time served, Bacos could be released in five months.

His testimony, closing with an emotional apology, offered the first detailed public description of the April 26 incident in Hamdaniya, a Sunni stronghold west of Baghdad, where prosecutors say the eight soldiers joined in an unprovoked murder tantamount to a war crime.

The men -- all members of Kilo Company in the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment -- are accused of dragging Hashim Ibrahim Awad from his home, binding his hands and feet, gagging him and then shooting him at point-blank range and later planting evidence and lying to cover up his death.

"I witnessed Sergeant Hutchins dead check the man and then fire three rounds into the man's head," Bacos said, speaking about his squad leader, Sergeant Lawrence Hutchins III, a focus of his testimony. After that, he said, Corporal Trent Thomas, another squad member, fired seven to 10 rounds into the man's chest.

All eight men were charged on June 21 with premeditated murder, kidnapping, conspiracy and making false statements to the investigators.

Charges against Bacos were reduced as part of his plea bargain.

The petty officer said the plot to kill an Iraqi and cover up a murder was devised hours before the incident as the men "huddled" in a palm grove near the crime scene, making plans. The unit had been on ambush duty, desperately searching for Saleh Gowad, a man the government considered "a known, high-value individual," he said. Gowad had been a detainee at Abu Ghraib but was later freed, which was an apparent frustration and sore point for Hutchins, he said.

"He was just mad that they kept letting him go when he was a known terrorist, sir," Bacos told the military judge, Colonel Steven Folsom.

"He was detained and released three times, sir," he added.

The petty officer said Hutchins and the other Marines "devised a plan" to kill any Iraqi if Gowad could not be found. But he said he was not part of the initial planning, and when he first heard the proposal, he brushed it off.

"I didn't believe they would carry out a plan like that," he said.

He protested, he told the judge, saying that in his view, "There was no justification. It was unlawful, sir." But he eventually went along with the plan, he said.

"I knew what we were doing was wrong," he testified. "I tried to say something, and then I decided to look away" for "I wanted to be part of the team. I wanted to be loyal," he said.

Court documents read into the record on Friday recounted how the men stole a shovel and an AK-47 to plant near the body, and later shot rounds in the air to create bullet casings that would suggest a gunfight had occurred.

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