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Iraqi Prisoner Died After Marine Grabbed His Throat, Officials Say

October 22, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — An Iraqi prisoner whose death sparked an investigation into treatment of prisoners by Marines died of a broken neck after being grabbed by the throat by a Marine, officials said Tuesday.

The Marine and his superior officer are now charged with negligent homicide in the death of the 52-year-old prisoner at the Whitehorse detention camp near the city of Nasiriyah.

The charge carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison.

Six other Marines are charged with hitting and kicking prisoners at the same facility. The eight Marines, all reservists from a regiment that draws from New York and New England, are at Camp Pendleton.

Lance Cpl. Christian Hernandez is charged with negligent homicide, cruelty, dereliction of duty and three counts of assault. His superior, Maj. Clark A. Paulus, is charged with negligent homicide, assault, lying, cruelty and two counts of dereliction of duty.

Lt. Col. Mark Pullin, deputy staff judge advocate for the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Division, said evidence would show that the Iraqi, identified as a member of the ruling Baath Party, had been grabbed by the throat and later had been found dead. But Pullin said there was no evidence that the Marines had intended to kill or injure him.

"We don't think he was held and strangled to death," Pullin said.

Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, negligent homicide is the least severe charge to punish someone who causes the death of another human being. Negligence is said to occur when someone "exhibits a lack of that degree of care of the safety of others, which a reasonably careful person would exhibit under the same or similar circumstances."

No evidence of an intent to injure is necessary for a conviction. A civilian federal appeals court, for example, in 1995 upheld the conviction of an Air Force technical sergeant for negligent homicide: He had given his car keys to a drunk companion who then got into a fatal accident.

Pullin said he was unsure how long after the prisoner had been grabbed by the throat that his body was found.

Defense attorneys have suggested that it may be difficult for the military to show that the prisoner was not killed by his fellow prisoners.

Lawyer Donald Rehkopf Jr., who represents a lance corporal accused of kicking and hitting prisoners, said he would argue that the Marines had not received proper training in how to be prison guards.

Pullin said that if the brutality cases go to trial, the Iraqi prisoners allegedly abused by the Marines could be brought to the U.S. to testify.

Pullin said that it was a "fair inference" that alleged misconduct by the six Marines had occurred when the prisoners had just arrived at the detention facility and Marines were attempting to assert control.

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