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Marine to be tried in Iraq slaying

The Iraqi soldier was bayoneted while on duty with Lance Cpl. Delano Holmes, who says he feared the man was signaling a sniper.

September 04, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON -- In past months, Marines from here have been charged with killing Iraqi civilians and prisoners.

Now a different kind of allegation has surfaced: A Marine is in the brig awaiting court-martial accused of murdering an Iraqi soldier with his bayonet while the two were assigned to a nighttime sentry post at Camp Fallouja.

Marine Lance Cpl. Delano Holmes, 21, says he acted in self-defense when he thought the Iraqi, who was wearing a ski mask, smoking and talking on a cellphone, may have been signaling to an insurgent sniper.

Three days earlier, in a different part of Fallouja, three Marines in Holmes' battalion were killed in a sniper attack.

Prosecutors say Holmes' version of the New Year's Eve incident is a lie: that, in truth, he killed the Iraqi and then falsely told investigators that the Iraqi had fired his AK-47 at him during a struggle and was aided by a second Iraqi soldier.

After an Article 32 preliminary hearing this summer, the convening authority in the case, Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, accepted the hearing officer's recommendation that Holmes be sent to a court-martial.

Holmes' civilian defense counsel, former federal prosecutor Stephen Cook, said the investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service "was shockingly flawed" and, among other oversights, never sought to probe the background of the dead Iraqi to see if he had insurgent ties.

Also, he said, the Iraqi's cellphone was never recovered to see what numbers he had been calling or text-messaging.

Holmes, a reservist who was attending college when he volunteered for Iraq duty, could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of unpremeditated murder.

Mattis, commanding general of Marine Forces Central Command, met with Cook but rejected a settlement offer.

Cook said Holmes told the Iraqi to put down his cigarette and cellphone and that when he refused, a fight broke out. Holmes is accused of stabbing the Iraqi at least 10 times.

The sentry post was an elevated platform at the perimeter of the base and thus light from a cellphone or glowing cigarette could be a signal, Cook said.

Pictures show that the windows at the platform were pockmarked from previous sniper shots, Cook added.

"In his [Holmes'] words, 'It was a very, very real threat to me,' " Cook said. "He felt his life was in danger."

In Indianapolis, Holmes' former foster mother, Jenni Crowley, has followed a pattern set by family members of other Marines accused of crimes in Iraq by using the Internet to rally support.

She has established a website, www.helpdefenddelano.com , encouraging the public to write to Mattis and members of Congress and to donate to Holmes' defense fund. Cook's law firm, Howrey LLP of Irvine, has taken the case pro bono.

A hearing is set for later this month in which Cook will try to have autopsy results thrown out on grounds that the body has not been available for a second autopsy by a defense specialist.

Holmes was attending a satellite campus of Indiana University when he volunteered to go to Iraq with a Michigan-based reserve unit, the 1st battalion, 24th regiment.

The battalion arrived in the insurgent stronghold of Anbar province in September and almost immediately began suffering casualties from roadside bombs and snipers in and around Fallouja.

"He would try to shield me from it, but when he would call from Iraq, he'd say, 'It's been a good couple of days, nobody got killed,' " Crowley said.

"It was a constant threat."

By New Year's Eve, 14 members of the battalion had been killed and several dozen wounded. On Dec. 28, three were killed in a sniper attack.

After the New Year's Eve slaying, Holmes was shifted to duty away from Iraqis. He was arrested when he returned to Twentynine Palms in April. By the time the unit returned to California, 22 in the battalion had been killed and 45 severely wounded.

While there are instances of Marines and Iraqi soldiers -- called jundis -- working well together and establishing mutual respect, there is also widespread suspicion about Iraqis among the Marines.

The Iraqis' competency and loyalty is often doubted by Marines.

Iraqi soldiers and police often wear ski masks lest insurgents retaliate against their families. But the practice is unnerving to the Americans because the insurgents also wear such masks.

The language barrier between the two sides often adds to tensions. The slain Iraqi, identified as Pvt. Munther Jaswern Muhammed Hassin, spoke no English and Holmes no Arabic, according to a military document.

The Marine Corps, in keeping with its policy on such matters, declined to release the hearing officer's report that led Mattis to order a court-martial.

Holmes has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and is receiving treatment in the brig, Cook said.

Crowley, an ordained minister who is in the process of adopting Holmes, is set to come to Camp Pendleton this week to meet with him. His birthday is Wednesday.

Crowley said she remembered his phone call after he was arrested: "He just said, 'Mom, this is a nightmare, and I'm innocent.' "

--

tony.perry@latimes.com

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