Reporting from Oceanside, Calif. — Asked to describe his four years behind bars for killing an unarmed Iraqi, Marine Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III recites the opening stanza of the poem "Invictus":
"Out of the night that covers me
Black as the Pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul."
If Hutchins, 26, is ultimately freed to return to his native Massachusetts and his 6-year-old daughter, he should also thank his lawyers and the military appeals court system.
In 2007, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison and a dishonorable discharge after being convicted of unpremeditated murder. Prosecutors convinced a military court that Hutchins was the leader of a misguided plot to stop roadside bomb attacks on Marines. In the process, the group seized an Iraqi civilian, executed him and then lied about the circumstances, the court found.
After he was sent to the military prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., a general cut Hutchins' sentence to 11 years.
On April 22, the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the court-martial verdict on the grounds that Hutchins was denied a fair trial because one of his military attorneys left the case on the eve of trial. The military is appealing that decision.
Even if the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces refuses to reinstate the guilty verdict, another general could still order a second trial. Another option is for the military to walk away from the high-profile case and discharge Hutchins.
Two weeks ago, a military judge at Camp Pendleton ordered Hutchins released from the brig, where he had been transferred after the April 22 ruling.
His rank has been restored and he has been assigned to duty in the logistics office while he awaits the next step in the legal process, which could take months. For the first time since being arrested in Iraq in 2006 and returned to Camp Pendleton in handcuffs and leg irons, Hutchins was allowed to talk to reporters last week.
During an interview at the home of a retired Marine captain, Hutchins was articulate, candid and unfailingly polite. He spoke, in a slight Boston accent, of his failed marriage, the Marine Corps, his co-defendants and the prison system — but on the advice of his attorney, Capt. Babu Kaza, he declined to discuss the details of the killing or the legal case.
At Leavenworth, he found solace in reading: Shakespeare (particularly "Merchant of Venice," and the character of Antonio, a symbol of unwavering friendship and loyalty), the novels of John Steinbeck ("East of Eden," with its biblical symbolism, is his favorite), the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius and the poetry of Robert Frost, Lord Byron, "Invictus" author William Ernest Henley, Rudyard Kipling ("If," of course), and others.
Now he's reading an anthology of motivational poetry, a history of the Vietnam War and Steven Pressfield's novelistic treatment of Alexander the Great, "The Afghan Campaign."
In prison, he corresponded with Bing West, a former Marine, former assistant secretary of Defense and chronicler of Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. West wrote a letter seeking clemency for Hutchins and has encouraged him to write about his experiences in Iraq and in prison.
Hutchins said he found prison a place full of hopelessness and danger. He was attacked by another prisoner and lost part of an ear. Still, he said he has no ill feeling toward the Marine Corps.
"The Marine Corps is an institution and a brotherhood," he said. "The institution will sacrifice one of its own to save the institution. The brotherhood will sacrifice itself to save one of its own."
And to which part does Hutchins feel he belongs? "The brotherhood."
While being held in the brig at Camp Pendleton awaiting court-martial, Hutchins married the mother of his daughter. After he was convicted and sent to Leavenworth, the marriage fell apart.
"My wife lost hope," he said.
He would like to reunite with the six Marines and the Navy corpsman who were in his squad that fateful night, all of whom were either convicted or pleaded guilty of various charges. "They're great guys," he said. "I want them to be part of my life." None of them remain in detention.
Hutchins was a high school senior when the 9/11 terrorists attacked the twin towers and the Pentagon. The attacks convinced him to forgo college and enlist in the Marine Corps, like his father, uncle and grandfather.
In early 2006, he deployed with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment to Iraq's Anbar province, west of Baghdad. He was a newly promoted sergeant and squad leader.
After weeks of dodging roadside bombs, he and his fellow Marines decided that their lives were in danger because of the rules of engagement issued by superiors. Suspected insurgents were being arrested but quickly released for lack of evidence.
"In Hamandiya, there were never firefights, (but) we were just being blown up all the time, sometimes six times a day," Hutchins said.