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VILSECK, Germany — A 172nd Infantry Brigade non-commissioned officer was found guilty at a court-martial here Wednesday of murdering four bound and blindfolded Iraqi detainees and dumping their bodies in a Baghdad canal.

Master Sgt. John Hatley, 40, had pleaded not guilty to premeditated murder in the killing of the detainees in March or April 2007.

A jury of fellow soldiers took almost four hours to find him guilty of murder and of conspiring with other soldiers from Company A, 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment to kill the four men, who were detained with a large cache of weapons after a patrol came under fire.

The maximum sentence Hatley could face is life in prison without parole. The mandatory minimum sentence for premeditated murder under the Uniform Code of Military Justice is life in prison with the possibility of parole.

The jury found Hatley not guilty of murdering a wounded detainee, who, witnesses claimed, he shot on a Baghdad street in January 2007.

Hatley was also acquitted of trying to cover up the canal killings by allegedly ordering two soldiers to clean blood from the troop compartment of a Bradley fighting vehicle and burn zip ties and blindfolds used on the four victims.

During closing arguments government trial counsel Capt. Derrick Grace told the jury that it should believe other members of Hatley’s former unit — Company A — who testified that he shot the detainees.

Grace referred to key evidence given by Sgt. 1st Class Joseph P. Mayo, 27, and Sgt. Michael Leahy Jr., 28, who told the jury that Hatley killed detainees. Both admitted to also killing detainees at the canal and both received lengthy prison sentences after being convicted of murder earlier this year.

However, Hatley’s civilian lawyer, David Court, attacked the credibility of the prosecution witnesses, several of whom gave conflicting versions of events or told different stories in court than they told Army investigators.

"It is critical that we determine which testimony is credible beyond reasonable doubt," Court said, adding that many prosecution witnesses cut deals with the government to escape punishment for involvement in the killings in exchange for their testimony.

Court had tried to persuade the jury that Mayo and Leahy’s testimony could be motivated by a desire to appear less culpable in the killings.

"The defense wants you to believe that everybody is lying," Grace said, adding that it was unreasonable to believe that all of the Company A soldiers who testified would lie to pin the blame for the killings on Hatley.

Court told the jury to take account of the many witnesses, including an Iraqi interpreter, who gave evidence of Hatley’s good character and record of respectful treatment of Iraqis.

However, Grace said evidence that Hatley was a good soldier did not work as a defense to murder.

"[Hatley] made choices he wasn’t entitled to make. He took lives he wasn’t entitled to take," Grace said. "The crimes are among the worst that can be committed by a professional soldier. The accused became judge, jury and executioner."

Some of the alleged victims at the canal, who were detained with a large cache of weapons, were probably "bad guys" but that did not absolve Hatley from his crimes, Grace said.

"It was his duty to care for the wounded detainee (who was allegedly killed in January). It was his duty to either process or let them (the other four detainees) go. Execution is still murder," he said.

Court told the jury that, even if they believed that Hatley, Mayo and Leahy fired at the back of the detainees’ heads at the canal, there is no proof that any of them died, since the government has not found bodies or forensic evidence despite an extensive search in Iraq.

Grace countered: "Hatley was a division master gunner. Can you believe that he and the others, who he trained, missed their targets from a few inches away? There is no doubt that these four men are dead. They are not walking around Iraq somewhere with big holes in the backs of their heads."

The jury was due to hear arguments with regard to sentencing on Thursday.

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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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