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Marine gets 8 years for Iraqi's death

The 22-year-old lance corporal still might face dishonorable discharge.

February 18, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — A 22-year-old Marine lance corporal was sentenced Saturday to eight years in the brig and a possible dishonorable discharge in connection with the killing of an unarmed Iraqi man last year, the toughest sentence yet meted out in the high-profile case.

Lance Cpl. Robert Pennington pleaded guilty to kidnapping and conspiracy in the shooting death of 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Awad in the village of Hamandiya. In exchange for his plea, a murder charge was dropped.

In previous hearings at Camp Pendleton on the case, a Navy corpsman was sentenced to 12 months in the brig, a private first class to 18 months, and two lance corporals to 21 months each. Like Pennington, the four had pleaded guilty.

Prosecutors suggested that evidence showed Pennington, who was on his third combat tour in Iraq, was more culpable in the killing, including taking the lead in planting an AK-47 near the body to suggest that Awad was an insurgent killed in a firefight.

Pennington admitted that his squad dragged Awad from his home in the middle of the night on April 26, 2006. They were frustrated after being unable to find their original target, a suspected insurgent bomber who had been arrested and released several times, he said.

Pennington's parents had pleaded for mercy from Col. Steven Folsom, the judge. His mother told Folsom that her son was psychologically damaged by the death of a buddy in the battle for Fallouja in November 2004.

In the event of a plea bargain in the Marine legal system, a judge and the commanding officer both decide on a sentence, and the lesser of the two is imposed.

Folsom sentenced Pennington to 14 years in the brig and a dishonorable discharge.

But a plea bargain approved by Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, commanding general of Marine Forces Central Command, put the maximum penalty at eight years, with credit for 340 days that Pennington has spent in the brig awaiting trial. Mattis will decide on the dishonorable discharge issue later, officials said.

Pennington's parents said they were shocked and saddened by the sentence. They pledged to continue the legal fight, through the appellate process or a request for clemency from Mattis.

"This is just the end of the first battle in what is going to be a long war," said Terry Pennington, the Marine's father. "We're in shock; we've been in shock since that day when our son called to say he wasn't in Iraq but was in the brig at Camp Pendleton."

The battle in Fallouja changed their son, making him moody and volatile, his parents told Folsom.

"I've come to understand that Bobby died in Fallouja," said Deanna Pennington, his mother.

Three other Marines, all charged with murder, are scheduled to face a court-martial in the case. Among them is Sgt. Lawrence G. Hutchins III, who is accused of being the ringleader. The seven Marines and Navy corpsman Melson Bacos were part of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.

Pennington told Folsom he regretted his actions but that he and other Marines were frustrated by their ill-defined mission in Iraq and the inability to tell friend from foe.

"As callous as it sounds," he said, every Iraqi was considered "guilty until proven otherwise."

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