Marine convicted of killing Iraqi to be retried

By JENNIFER HLAD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 15, 2014

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — A Marine sentenced to 11 years in prison for the 2006 killing of an unarmed Iraqi in Hamdaniyah will be retried later this month after his conviction was thrown out because a confession was obtained after he had been improperly denied a lawyer.

But the civilian lawyer of the Marine, Sgt. Lawrence G. Hutchins III, argued in a hearing Thursday that he should first get a new Article 32 hearing because the confession was the centerpiece of the government’s case against him.

Hutchins was convicted of unpremeditated murder in 2007 for the death of the unarmed Iraqi and served six years of his sentence before it was overturned. The Marine Corps announced in January that it would retry him for the crime.

Six other Marines and one Navy corpsman also were convicted in the killing, but none of the others served more than 18 months. Hutchins was the squad leader.

Hutchins’ lawyer, Chris Oprison, is a former Marine prosecutor and now is a partner with the law firm Akerman LLP. He said he took Hutchins’ case for free after reading the details.

“He’s a Marine that needed help,” Oprison said, adding that he thought the Marine Corps’ retrying Hutchins is “pretty deplorable.”

“His family’s been through hell,” Oprison said. “He’s a stellar Marine … he needs to be left alone to go on with his life.”

Hutchins lives in Oceanside, Cailf., with his wife and three children. His wife, Reyna, sat behind him in the courtroom in the hearing Thursday.

During the hearing, Oprison said Hutchins’ case may have been compromised by an unusual search of defense counsel offices here in May. Criminal investigators told Oprison they did the search to find a cellphone belonging to Sgt. Rigo Joseph Betancourt, who, in an unrelated case, was accused of drug use, kidnapping, assault and other offenses, including being a member of an outlaw motorcycle gang.

The investigators insisted that while they went through reams of files looking for the phone, they did not read any of them and did not see any information protected by lawyer-client privilege.

Maj. Bart Slabbekorn, a military attorney whose prosecution team was handling the Betancourt case, said investigators learned that defense lawyers had the cellphone when they provided copies of text messages in an effort to have Betancourt released from pretrial confinement.

Slabbekorn said he had believed the defense attorneys would turn the cellphone over to investigators, and that he had hoped until moments beforehand that a search to seize the phone would not be necessary.

Gunnery Sgt. Trevor Hansen, a criminal investigator, testified that he videotaped the search because the investigators “were trying to be as transparent as possible.”

They looked anywhere that someone could hide a cellphone, he said.

The testimony became heated when Hansen mentioned that defense lawyers standing in the hallway had made “snide comments” about the search, and Oprison sarcastically said he couldn’t imagine why they would be upset about people “rifling through privileged documents.”

Hansen said he knew the offices had privileged information inside, but he also knew that some of the attorneys had the cellphone and were hiding it. Later, in response to a question, he said he has a fundamental distrust of defense counsel.

Lead prosecutor Capt. Peter McNeilly said Oprison’s assertion that Hutchins’ case is somehow tainted by the search is “pure speculation,” and not backed up by evidence, though he urged the judge, Navy Capt. Andrew Henderson, to view the video before making a decision.

Henderson on Thursday denied Hutchins’ motion for a new arraignment, but was to rule on four more motions, including the request for a new Article 32 hearing, Friday.

Twitter: @jhlad

Lawrence Hutchins


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