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Confessions key to case against Marine muderers

Alleged confessions appear to form the crux of the government's case against seven Marines and a Navy corpsman charged with murder, kidnapping and other crimes in an Iraqi man's slaying last April.

Alleged confessions appear to form the crux of the government’s case against seven Marines and a Navy corpsman charged with murder, kidnapping and other crimes in an Iraqi man’s slaying last April.

Defense attorneys challenge the validity of the statements and say without them, the government’s case is baseless.

Details about the prosecution’s case emerged Wednesday during preliminary hearings for two of eight men accused in the shooting death of 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Awad in the village of Hamdania.

Also, in a suprise development, prosecutors said they would not seek the death penalty for one of the accused men, Marine Pfc. John J. Jodka III.

At Marine Cpl. Marshall L. Magincalda’s hearing, prosecutors submitted a thick packet of evidence and pointed to three documents they say show enough probable cause for his charges to be recommended for court martial.

Prosecutor Capt. Nicholas L. Gannon claimed the evidence included a confession by squad leader Sgt. Lawrence G. Hutchins and a confessional video by Cpl. Trent D. Thomas.

What exactly they allegedly confessed to was unclear; prosecutors did not elaborate.

“Those three pieces of evidence should satisfy the investigation in its current form,” Gannon said.

Magincalda’s attorney, Joseph Low, said he would contest the statements. Other defense lawyers have previously said they will try to suppress any alleged confessions if the case goes to trial. They contend investigators used heavy-handed and coercive techniques to obtain them.

The so-called Article 32 hearings convened for Jodka, 20, and Magincalda, 23, are similar to preliminary or grand jury hearings in civilian courts. Under military code, the hearings determine whether the defendants face courts martial.

According to prosecutors, the Marines and sailor kidnapped Awad on April 26, bound his feet, dragged him from his home and shot him to death in a roadside hole. All have been held in the Camp Pendleton brig since May.

At Jodka’s hearing, the defense argued vehemently to keep secret “inflammatory” statements made by the private and other Marines, saying they would prejudice any potential jurors in the event of a trial.

Joseph Casas, an attorney for Jodka, said the statements were the only evidence the government had.

“Take the statements out of the picture and I submit to you the government has nothing,” Casas said.

It was unclear how prosecutors’ position on the death penalty in Jodka’s case would affect other defendants.

Laurie Levenson, a law school professor at Loyola University, said the prosecution’s decision not to seek capital punishment was an unusual move possibly aimed at reducing public scrutiny of their case.

“This builds the credibility of the prosecutor,” Levenson said. “They will still need to meet their burden (of proof), but I don’t think their burden will be as high.”

The military has not executed anyone since 1961, when a soldier was hanged for rape and attempted murder, she said.

Gary D. Solis, a former Marine Corps prosecutor and judge advocate who teaches law of war at Georgetown University Law Center, called the move “very weird” and possibly a “tactical error” by the prosecutor.

“The prosecution has nothing to do with it,” Solis said of capital referrals.

The other defendants, all members of the Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, are expected to have separate hearings in coming weeks. The charges include kidnapping, murder and conspiracy.


Associated Press Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press