US marine charged with murdering Iraqi civilians may face life sentence

Repeated exposures to bomb blasts over several deployments harmed the judgment of a Marine corporal at the time he is accused of kidnapping and murdering an Iraqi civilian, his lawyer said.

Maj. Haytham Faraj's comments came during his opening statement Monday at a court-martial for Cpl. Trent D. Thomas, a 25-year-old infantryman who belonged to an eight-man squad involved in the death.

Faraj said the traumatic brain injury would bolster Thomas' main defense - that he believed he was following lawful orders from his squad leader.

"He honestly believed that the order was lawful," Faraj said. "He had cognitive impairment as a result of brain injury from blasts. That affected his ability at the time to make the type of decision to say no."

Lt. Col. John Baker said in his opening statement as prosecutor that Thomas had failed in his responsibilities as a Marine and should be convicted.

"I will prove to you beyond a reasonable doubt that Cpl. Thomas is a murderer," Baker said. "This is an old-fashioned, premeditated, conspiracy to kill."

The court-martial is the first trial among seven Marines and a Navy corpsman charged in last year's slaying of 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Awad in Anbar province, west of Baghdad. Thomas will be judged by a panel of three officers and six enlisted Marines.

In his opening statement, defense attorney Maj. Haytham Faraj said Thomas was only following orders the night of April 25, 2006. Thomas' judgment was affected after he suffered brain injuries in explosions on an earlier combat tour, he said.

"Under the circumstances, Cpl. Thomas had no choice but to do what he did," Faraj said.

Thomas, 25, pleaded guilty in January as part of a pretrial agreement. But he withdrew his plea in February on the eve of his sentencing, having already given details of his involvement in the killing.

Thomas' attorneys said at the time that their client had an "epiphany" before he changed his plea to not guilty. Thomas claimed he had been following what he perceived to be a lawful order from the squad's leader, Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III.

According to prosecutors, during a nighttime patrol, the men participated in a plan to go to the house of a suspected insurgent, kidnap him and kill him. When they could not get to the intended victim, they instead snatched Awad, a father of 11, from a nearby house.

Prosecutors say Thomas, the senior corporal in the squad and a fireteam leader, led a four-man team to take Awad from his home. Thomas' tour in Hamdania was his third combat tour in Iraq.

The Marine did not speak during Monday's proceeding. His mother and wife were in the courtroom.

Four Marines and the corpsman have already pleaded guilty to reduced charges and been sentenced to between one and eight years in military prison. The sailor, Melson Bacos, was sentenced to a year in military prison and released two months early.

Those troops testified that several squad members took Awad to a ditch, then shot him to death. In an attempt to cover up the killing, they said, they placed a shovel and AK-47 by his body to make it look as if he was an insurgent who was digging a hole to plant a bomb.

The men who pleaded guilty have pointed to squad leader Hutchins as the mastermind, though each acknowledged being complicit in the plan. Hutchins' court-martial is expected to start this month. The sergeant's attorney Rich Brannon, who was watching court proceedings Monday, said he believed his client was innocent.

If convicted of murder, Thomas faces a mandatory life sentence.

Thomas, a St. Louis-area native, is also charged with conspiracy, making a false official statement, larceny and housebreaking. If he is acquitted of murder but convicted of any of the other charges, the jury will decide his sentence.