By Debbie Gregory.
A Marine sergeant’s murder conviction has been overturned by the military’s highest court and he is expected to be released as a free man. His legal fight, however, is not over.
Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins led a squad that was accused of kidnapping an Iraqi man from his home in 2006, shooting him to death. Hutchins said they believed the man was an insurgent leader. He was a retired policeman.
A military tribunal convicted Hutchins of murder and issued him the longest sentence of the eight squad members – 11 years. The seven other Marines were given reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony. None of them served more than 18 months.
Last month, the military’s highest court overturned Hutchins’ murder conviction on the grounds that his constitutional rights were violated. Hutchins was held in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer for seven days during his 2006 interrogation in Iraq. After seven days, a Navy investigator returned and asked Hutchins for permission to search his belongings. Hutchins said he asked to tell his side of the story and was told he could do so when he waived his right to counsel and provided a sworn statement about the crimes.
The judges ruled much of the case rested on that confession, which they determined was illegally obtained. “Accordingly, under the circumstances of this case, it was error for the military judge to admit the statement made by Hutchins on May 19, 2006,” the judges concluded in their ruling.
The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces threw out his conviction and he is expected to walk free. He has served about half of his 11-year sentence. However, the Navy can appeal to the Supreme Court or send the case to the convening authority, which can then order a retrial or let the ruling stand.
This isn’t the first time Hutchins has been released, only to find himself behind bars again. Three years ago a lower court ruled that his trial was unfair because his lead defense lawyer quit shortly before it began. Hutchins was released and returned to a desk job at Camp Pendleton. Eight months later, the military’s highest court disagreed with the ruling, reinstated his murder conviction, and returned him to the brig.
Navy officials have not commented on the case.
Former Navy officer David Glazier, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said Wednesday’s ruling demonstrates the military’s poor prosecution record.
“For these very serious allegations of conduct that one would think of as war crimes, the military justice system has not performed very well in the past couple decades,” Glazier said.
“Here this guy’s conviction is overturned on the basis that he was mistreated by the government during his initial apprehension, and yet he’s already served five years in prison,” he added. “If the conviction was unjust in the first place, it’s kind of appalling it’s taken the military justice system five years to resolve it.”