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Marine reservist's murder case goes to jury

He says he stabbed an Iraqi soldier while on guard duty because he feared the man was trying to signal snipers.

December 13, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — A jury of eight Marines -- all veterans of the war in Iraq -- deliberated for 3 1/2 hours Wednesday without reaching a verdict in the case of a lance corporal accused of murdering an Iraqi soldier last year while they were on nighttime sentry duty in downtown Fallouja, west of Baghdad.

The jury of five enlisted Marines and three officers was expected to continue deliberations this morning.

Lance Cpl. Delano Holmes, 22, a reservist from Indianapolis, faces a possible life sentence if convicted of unpremeditated murder. The court-martial judge, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Meeks, told jurors that they could convict Holmes of manslaughter.

Prosecutors accused Holmes of repeatedly stabbing Iraqi Pvt. Munther Jasem Muhammed Hassin with his bayonet in the predawn darkness on New Year's Eve while they were together in a tiny sentry post.

"Pvt. Hassin was an ally of the United States," Capt. Brett Miner, one of the prosecutors, told jurors. "There was no evidence he was [linked to insurgents], or anything but a peaceful guy."

Holmes did not testify. But jurors saw videotape of him talking to an investigator from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and the investigator also testified about other interview sessions.

In statements he made to investigators, Holmes said he thought Hassin was trying to signal insurgent snipers by lighting a cigarette and using a lighted cellphone.

When Hassin refused to put down the cigarette and phone, the two began fighting, and the Iraqi reached for his AK-47, Holmes told investigators.

Defense attorney Steve Cook told jurors in his closing argument that Holmes' actions were "a perfectly reasonable application and escalation of force."

The five-day trial centered on one of the more politically sensitive elements of the U.S. mission in Iraq: the relationship between Marines and Iraqi security forces.

Marines called by the defense said that U.S. troops are told to be suspicious of Iraqi police and soldiers because they could be working for the insurgency. That suspicion is "in the minds of all the Marines," Cook said.

Marines testified that predeployment training in Twentynine Palms, Calif., includes a scenario in which an Iraqi police officer attempts to kidnap a Marine.

An autopsy on Hassin found 17 stab wounds, 26 cuts and one chop that nearly severed his nose, prosecutors said.

In Iraq, Holmes, who was attached to the 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment, was part of a quick- reaction force that mobilized whenever Marines were in firefights or attacked by snipers.

The sentry location, which guarded an outpost near a mosque and apartment building, had taken fire from insurgents in previous weeks, witnesses testified. A photograph of the ballistic glass at the post taken hours after the Iraqi soldier was killed showed 22 bullet holes.

Prosecutors did not suggest a possible motive for Holmes' actions but did repeatedly tell jurors that he lied to investigators when he claimed a second Iraqi also was fighting with him and that one of them fired an AK-47.

Although Marines and Iraqi soldiers are told to adhere to "light discipline" at night -- maintaining a blackout so that light does not allow someone to target them -- that does not justify Holmes killing Hassin, prosecutor Miner said.

"You're going to hack up a human being because of light discipline?" he said.

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