Marine Sgt. Jermaine A. Nelson, jailed in Los Angeles last week for contempt of court for refusing to testify against his former squad leader about the alleged killing of Iraqi prisoners, was released Thursday after promising to attend a grand jury session and listen to questions.
Joseph Low, Nelson's attorney, said his client promised U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson that he would attend a June 18 session of the grand jury, which is investigating the deaths of prisoners during the fight for Fallouja in late 2004.
Nelson, 26, did not promise to provide information about former Sgt. Jose Luis Nazario, Low said. "I did inform the judge [that] nothing has changed except our willingness to listen," he said.
Anderson had Nelson jailed last week when, despite receiving immunity, he declined to answer questions about "a brother Marine." Low said Nazario had saved Nelson's life in Iraq.
Nazario, now a civilian, is charged with two counts of voluntary manslaughter. Trial is set for July 8 in federal court in Riverside. Nelson has been charged in the military system with unpremeditated murder and dereliction of duty. He remains on active duty at Camp Pendleton.
Nelson's fiancee and a dozen Marines and other supporters waited outside the courtroom, which was closed because a grand jury proceeding was at issue. By law, grand juries meet in secret.
Anderson declined a request from The Times to delay Thursday's session so one of the newspaper's attorneys could argue against excluding the public.
Marine Gunnery Sgt. James Griffin, stationed at Twentynine Palms, said outside the courtroom that he was angry that the Marine Corps had not backed Nelson's refusal.
"They teach us 'you never leave your brothers behind,' " Griffin said, "but he's all by himself right now. . . . We give our lives to the Corps -- now this Marine is fighting for his."
The jailing of Nelson two days before the Memorial Day weekend prompted angry website posts by Marines and supporters.
Court documents suggest that the Marines said they had to make a split-second decision: either take time to process prisoners according to the rules or rush to the aid of Marines pinned down in a firefight.
Nazario allegedly told Marines under his command to "take care of them" so the unit could support fellow Marines. Nazario, according to court documents, had informed a senior Marine over the telephone that they had taken prisoners while clearing houses during the fight for the insurgent stronghold in Anbar province.
According to the documents, the following conversation allegedly took place:
"Are they dead yet?" Nazario was asked by the Marine.
"Negative," Nazario responded. The other Marine, who has not been identified, then said, "Make it happen," according to the documents.
In court, Nelson appeared subdued. When Anderson ordered him jailed eight days earlier, Nelson was wearing a Marine uniform. When he appeared Thursday, he was in jail garb and shackled.
"It's hard on him; I'm not going to lie about it," Low said.
A third Marine, Sgt. Ryan Weemer, is also charged in military court with unpremeditated murder. Weemer, 25, had left active duty but was still in the reserves. He allegedly disclosed the killings while being interviewed for a job with the Secret Service. That launched an investigation by the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
Weemer was recalled to active duty so he could be charged by the military.
Outside the courtroom, retired Marine Gerald Johnson, now a chaplain with the Oceanside Police Department, said charging the Marines could make other Marines hesitate to take action during combat for fear of being second-guessed later by prosecutors.
Another supporter, Joyce Glanza, said it was wrong to pull Nelson into a civilian courtroom. "It's not a jury of your peers anymore; it's a totally different thing."