VILSECK, Germany — "I ain’t no angel," admitted a 172nd Infantry Brigade noncommissioned officer shortly before a military jury sentenced him Thursday to life in prison with the possibility of parole for the execution-style murders of four Iraqi detainees in 2007.

Master Sgt. John Hatley, 40, also was reduced to the rank of private and dishonorably discharged less than six months short of 20 years of service.

In an unsworn statement, Hatley told the court that he was "… just an ordinary NCO who was afforded the opportunity to be in the company of heroes, to defend our great country and to defend the innocent people in a place where we stood between those who would harm us and those we were ordered to protect from genocide."

At the time when the detainees were killed, Hatley’s unit, Company A, 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, was dealing with 50 killings of Iraqis by other Iraqis each month, he said.

"Within four months of being there we reduced attacks on coalition forces and civilians by 40 percent," he said.

On Wednesday, the jury convicted Hatley of premeditated murder and conspiracy to commit premeditated murder. Hatley was acquitted of an obstruction of justice charge and an unrelated premeditated murder charge. Hatley pleaded not guilty to all the charges against him.

The jury recommended that the court-martial’s convening authority, Joint Multinational Training Command chief Brig. Gen. David R. Hogg, exercise clemency and allow Hatley’s wages to continue to be paid to his family for six months.

Capt. John Riesenberg, assistant government trial counsel, told the jury that their sentence should be aimed at stopping other first sergeants and soldiers from doing what the Company A soldiers did.

"Send a message to the world that this is an army that recognizes that it is different, that American soldiers just don’t do this. They don’t execute detainees in the middle of the night by shooting them in the back of the head when they are bound and blindfolded and dump their bodies in a canal," he said.

The killings occurred in March or April of 2007.

It was Hatley’s idea to kill the detainees, Riesenberg said.

"A first sergeant in the U.S. Army came up with the idea to commit a brutal execution-style murder of detainees and he did it with his own men. He failed them, the Army, the Iraqi people and the American war effort," Riesenberg said.

Hatley had a duty to treat detainees humanely in a country where he was supposed to be helping establish the rule of law, he said.

After the sentence, Hatley’s wife, Kim, walked into a field beside the courthouse and appeared to weep alone for several minutes until a soldier ran over to comfort her.

Then Hatley was allowed to hug his wife while his supporters, many of them members of Company A, formed a huddle nearby. The stocky NCO, who walked with support of a cane, then hugged each of his supporters, many of whom were clearly upset by the court’s decision.

"It (Hatley’s conviction and sentence) is (expletive)," said an Iraqi interpreter who had testified about Hatley’s good treatment of Iraqis.

Before the sentence was read, Hatley told the court he still loves the military and he’s proud that his son recently joined the Marines.

It would be easy to grow bitter about having … "your honor and courage questioned by so many people who have never had theirs tested," he said.

The convictions of Hatley and two other soldiers in the detainee murders — Sgt. 1st Class Joseph P. Mayo, 27, and Sgt. Michael Leahy Jr., 28 – will automatically be appealed to a higher military court.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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