CAMP PENDLETON — A Navy corpsman was sentenced Friday to one year in the brig after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy and kidnapping in the death of an Iraqi man and agreed to testify against seven Marines charged with murder.
In an emotional statement at his court-martial, Petty Officer 3rd Class Melson Bacos admitted his role in killing an unarmed man and asked forgiveness of the dead man's family.
"I also apologize to our country, to the Navy and the Marine Corps for not living up to the values of honor, courage and commitment," he told the judge, Col. Steven Folsom. "I've learned from this mistake, and to tell the truth is the only honorable thing I can do."
Bacos, 21, said he was sickened as he watched Marines fatally shoot 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Awad, a disabled Iraqi who had been dragged from his home shortly after midnight April 26 in Hamandiya, west of Baghdad.
"I felt shocked and sick to my stomach," Bacos testified.
He said he knew that what the Marines were doing was illegal but he felt powerless to stop it.
"They were going to do what they were going to do," he said. "I felt I couldn't do anything else."
But he added that later in the night, he told a fellow corpsman about his dismay over what the Marines had done, saying: "I want you to remember something -- we're different. We're not like these men."
Bacos testified that the Marine squad leader, Sgt. Lawrence G. Hutchins III, had hoped to capture and kill a "high value" Iraqi long suspected of planting bombs. When the original target could not be found, Hutchins allegedly decided to kidnap and kill Awad, who had also been suspected of insurgent connections. The squad was on a late-night ambush mission to catch insurgents planting roadside bombs.
Bacos said he watched the Marines line up and fire at Awad. Hutchins then did a "dead check" on Awad, firing three more rounds into his head, and Cpl. Trent D. Thomas fired seven to 10 rounds into him, Bacos testified.
Bacos said he had earlier asked Cpl. Marshall Magincalda to release Awad but Magincalda refused, telling Bacos he was being a weakling. As a corpsman, Bacos was assigned to provide additional firepower as well as emergency medical help to the Marine squad.
"Why didn't I do more to stop it?" Bacos said in his statement to Folsom. "Why didn't I just walk away? The answer is I wanted to be part of the team."
Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 10 to 15 years in prison and a dishonorable discharge. Defense attorneys said a term of several months would be sufficient.
Folsom said Friday that he would have sentenced Bacos to 10 years in prison and a dishonorable discharge but that he was bound by the plea agreement already approved by the top general that mandated one year in the brig and no discharge. The secretary of the Navy or the Marine brass, however, could move to discharge him under less than honorable circumstances.
In exchange for his guilty pleas, a murder charge that could have brought the death penalty was dismissed.
Bacos agreed to testify against the Marines, who were once his comrades in Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.
In the original charges, Bacos faced a murder count even though he was not alleged to have fired his weapon. That charge was based on the theory that any co-conspirator is equally guilty when a murder is committed.
The Marines and Bacos were charged with leaving an AK-47 and shovel near the body to suggest that Awad was an insurgent caught burying a roadside bomb.
Bacos testified that he stole an AK-47 from an Iraqi home and fired it into the air so the Marines would have shell casings to leave beside Awad's body.
Bacos, who is married to a Navy corpsman, had been held at the brig at Camp Pendleton with the other seven defendants since being returned from Iraq in May. But once the plea bargain was reached, he was moved to the brig at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego for his safety.
Marine Pfc. John Jodka also has been moved from the brig at Camp Pendleton, suggesting that another plea deal is underway. A gag order prevents lawyers from discussing his case.
Bacos was on his second deployment to Iraq; in his first tour, during the battle in Fallouja in late 2004, he received a Purple Heart after being wounded and a Combat Action Ribbon.
Initially, the Marines told their superiors that Awad had been killed after he was discovered planting a roadside bomb to explode beneath a U.S. military or Iraqi civilian vehicle. But the Marine Corps launched an investigation after Awad's family protested that he had been taken away without provocation and was not connected to the insurgency.
Folsom watched a 19-minute tape of Awad's relatives explaining their version of the April 26 killing before he handed down the sentence. The Iraqi's brothers described Awad as a disabled police officer and father of 11 who bore no malice toward American forces in Iraq.
On Friday, an attorney for one of the Marines asked the judge to close the hearing to the media so Bacos' comments would not be made public and possibly taint any jury pool. Folsom denied the request from attorney David Brahms, who is representing Lance Cpl. Robert Pennington.
"This is not a game," Brahms told reporters. "This is real. I have a man's life in my hands."
The Hamandiya incident is the first of two high-profile cases of alleged brutality against Iraqis by Marines from Camp Pendleton to come to court-martial.
Two dozen Marines are being investigated in a November incident in which 24 Iraqis, including women and children, were killed in the town of Haditha.
A preliminary investigation has concluded that some of the Marines should face murder charges. But Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis Jr., commanding general of Marine Forces Central Command, is still reviewing those recommendations and has not decided whether charges will be filed.