CAMP PENDLETON — A Marine corporal, testifying Saturday at the murder trial of a buddy, said that Marines in his unit began routinely beating Iraqis after being ordered by officers to "crank up the violence level."
Cpl. Saul H. Lopezromo said Marines in his platoon, including the defendant, Cpl. Trent D. Thomas, were angry when officers criticized them as not being as tough as other Marine platoons.
"We're all hard-chargers, we're not there to mess around, so we took it as an insult," Lopezromo said.
Within weeks of allegedly being scolded, seven Marines and a Navy corpsman went out late one night to find and kill a suspected insurgent in the village of Hamandiya near the Abu Ghraib prison. The Marines and corpsman were from 2nd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment.
Lopezromo said their target was known to his neighbors as the "prince of jihad" and had been arrested several times, only to be released by the Iraqi legal system.
Unable to find their target, the Marines and corpsman dragged another man from his house, fatally shot him, and then planted an AK-47 assault rifle near the body to make it look like he had been killed in a shootout, according to court testimony.
Four Marines and the corpsman, initially charged with murder in the April 2006 killing, have pleaded guilty to reduced charges and been given jail sentences ranging from 10 months to eight years. Thomas, 25, from St. Louis, pleaded guilty but withdrew his plea and is the first defendant to go to court-martial.
"We were told to crank up the violence level," said Lopezromo, who testified for the defense. He indicated that during daily patrols the Marines became much rougher with Iraqis. Asked by a juror to explain, he said, "We beat people, sir."
Lopezromo said he believed that officers knew of the beatings, and he suggested that the order to get tough soured him on the Marine Corps.
Lopezromo, who was not part of the squad on its late-night mission, said he saw nothing wrong in what Thomas and the others did.
"I don't see it as an execution, sir," he told the judge. "I see it as killing the enemy."
He added that Marines, in effect, consider all Iraqi men as part of the insurgency. "Because of the way they live, the clans, they're all in it together," he said.
In August, Lopezromo and two other Marines were charged with assaulting an Iraqi two weeks before the killing that led to charges against Thomas and the others. Charges against all three were dropped.
Thomas' attorneys have portrayed him as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury from his combat duty in Fallouja in 2004. Also, they have sought to convince the jury that Thomas believed he was following a lawful order to get tougher with suspected insurgents.
Prosecution witnesses testified that Thomas shot the 52-year-old Iraq at point-blank range after he had already been shot by other Marines and was lying on the ground.
Lopezromo said a procedure called "dead-checking" was routine. If Marines entered a house where a man was wounded, instead of checking to see whether he needed medical aid, they shot him to make sure he was dead, he testified.
"If somebody is worth shooting once, they're worth shooting twice," he said.
Marines are taught "dead-checking" in boot camp, the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton, and the pre-deployment training at Twentynine Palms called Mojave Viper, he said.
Other Marines testified that Thomas was emotionally shaken by the deaths of Marines during the fighting in Fallouja in late 2004. After the death of Lance Cpl. George Payton, "he broke down and cried, he was angry, the usual effect when you lose a friend," Staff Sgt. Gage Coduto said.
Coduto said many Marines had difficulty adjusting to a change in the of rules of engagement from the Fallouja battle to places such as Hamandiya.
"It took a lot of patience for guys to bring it down a notch," he said.
The jury comprises three officers and six enlisted personnel, all of whom have served in Iraq. The trial resumes Monday.