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Convicted Marine is spared a prison sentence

July 21, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — A military jury handed a bad-conduct discharge without a prison sentence Friday to a Marine corporal convicted of kidnapping and conspiracy to commit murder in the execution of an unarmed Iraqi in Hamandiya last year.

The jurors, all Marines with combat experience in Iraq, could have sentenced Cpl. Trent D. Thomas to life in prison without parole plus a dishonorable discharge.

"It's over," Thomas, 25, said as he embraced his tearful wife, Erica. "We're going home -- together."

He had pleaded guilty in January and accepted a 12-year sentence as part of a plea bargain but then changed his mind and requested a trial.

The jury convicted Thomas on Wednesday in the slaying of the middle-aged Iraqi man, who was dragged from his home, marched 1,000 yards and shot 11 times.

Thomas was found not guilty of premeditated murder. If he had been convicted of that charge, the jury would have been required to sentence him to life in prison without parole.

Some of Thomas' squad members testified that they decided to kill an Iraqi out of frustration with the legal system in Iraq, which they contended lets suspected insurgents roam free.

Thomas' attorneys told the jury he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury and had been unable to resist the order from his squad leader to be part of a plot to take an Iraqi from his home and kill him.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Thomas displayed no remorse for the killing, saying, "I believe we did what we needed to do to save Marines' lives."

He said he had prayed about the case while in jail for more than a year, and said Thursday night he told God, "Let your will be done." He said Friday, "I guess his will was for me to get out."

Five other members of Thomas' squad who were charged with murder of the man, who they said was a suspected insurgent, have pleaded guilty to reduced charges and been given plea-bargain sentences of 10 months to eight years. The final two squad members will go to trial next week.

"This is not over for me," Thomas said. "Not as long as two of my boys are out there. I'm there for them all the way."

All the defendants were with 1st Squad, 2nd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment.

David Brahms, attorney for Lance Cpl. Robert Pennington, who was given an eight-year sentence, said he thought the decision would help Pennington's appeal.

John Jodka, whose son Pfc. John J. Jodka III was sentenced to 18 months, called the decision "well-deserved justice for a hero."

Gary Solis, a former Marine lawyer and now a law professor at Georgetown University, said the decision was the jurors' way of saying the Marines "can't have that kind of conduct in our ranks" but "we empathize with your situation."

A bad-conduct discharge means Thomas is ineligible for most veterans benefits. But it does not carry the same stigma as a dishonorable discharge, which could have kept him from finding a job.

The judge ordered the jury not to talk about the case, but questions jurors submitted before their deliberations suggested that they were concerned that Thomas had not received a paycheck since November, causing economic hardship for his wife and two children.

The judge, Lt. Col. David Jones, told jurors that Thomas had not been paid because his enlistment had ended.

Lt. Col. John Baker, the lead prosecutor, had sought a dishonorable discharge and 15 years in prison as a warning to other Marines to follow the rules of war.

Maj. Haytham Faraj, one of Thomas' attorneys, asked that Thomas be given no jail time beyond the 519 days he had served awaiting trial.

Speaking to the jury, Faraj quoted a Marine lieutenant colonel about serving in Iraq: "When you've been in this environment long enough, your heart turns murderous."

The nine jurors deliberated an hour before sentencing Thomas. Three have served three tours in Iraq, five have served two tours and the ninth served one tour. Five have been awarded the combat action ribbon for having come under enemy fire. One juror received the Navy Cross, the nation's second highest medal for bravery, and a second received a Bronze Star for valor.

"We wanted people who had been shot at, who had suffered family deprivations," said Victor Kelley, Thomas' lead civilian attorney. Thomas served three tours in Iraq and was wounded in the fight in Fallouja in 2004.

Both the prosecution and defense said before Thomas' sentencing that it would send a message to troops in Iraq.

"There's got to be a cost that deters those frustrated fire team leaders that are there now," said Baker. "It's a frustrating mission."

Faraj countered that a long sentence would mean that Marines had abandoned one of their own despite the Marine Corps dictum that no Marine is left behind on the battlefield.

Thomas did not testify during his court-martial and his comments at the sentencing portion of the trial were unsworn so that he was not cross-examined.

He did not speak of the night the Iraqi was killed, but in a plea to the jurors he talked about his love for his fellow Marines and said he wished he could reenlist and return to combat in Iraq.

Master Sgt. Keith Backmann, his voice breaking, told jurors that Thomas had refused to be evacuated after being wounded and had continued to fight the insurgents. "That tells you a lot about his character," he said.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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