CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – A Marine corporal, testifying Saturday at the murder trial of a buddy, said that Marines in his unit routinely began beating Iraqis after being ordered by officers to “crank up the violence level.”
Cpl. Saul Lopezromo said that Marines in his platoon, including the defendant, Cpl. Trent Thomas, were angry when officers criticized them as not as tough as other Marine platoons.
“We’re all hard-chargers, we’re not there to mess around, so we took it as an insult,” Lopezromo said.
Within days of allegedly being scolded as soft, seven Marines and a corpsman went out late at night to find and kill a suspected insurgent in the village of Hamandiya near Abu Ghraib Prison. The Marines and corpsman were from 2nd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment.
Lopezromo said their target was known to his neighbors as the “prince of jihad,” and had been arrested several times – only to be released by the Iraqi legal system.
Unable to find their target, the Marines and corpsman dragged another man from his house, fatally shot him, and then planted an AK-47 near his body to make it appears as if he had been killed in a firefight, according to court testimony.
Four Marines and the corpsman, initially charged with murder in the April 2006 killing, have pleaded guilty to reduced charges and been given jail sentences from 10 months to eight years. Thomas, 25, from St. Louis, pleaded guilty but withdrew his plea and is the first defendant to go to a court martial.
“We were told to crank up the violence level,” said Lopezromo, who testified for the defense. He indicated that during daily patrols the Marines became much rougher with Iraqis. Asked by a juror to explain, he said: “We beat people, sir.”
Lopezromo said he believed that officers knew of the beatings, and he suggested that the order to get tough soured him on the Marine Corps.
Lopezromo, who was not part of the squad on its late-night mission, said he sees nothing wrong in what Thomas and the others did.
“I don’t see it as an execution sir,” he told the judge. “I see it as killing the enemy.”
He added that Marines, in effect, consider all Iraqi men as part of the insurgency. “Because of the way they live, the clans, they’re all in it together,” he said.
Thomas’ attorneys have portrayed him as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury from his combat duty in Fallujah in 2004. Also, they have sought to convince the jury that Thomas believed he was following a lawful order to get tougher with suspected insurgents.
Prosecution witnesses testified that Thomas shot the 52-year-old Iraqi at point-blank range after he had been shot by other Marines and was lying on the ground.
But Lopezromo said a procedure called “dead-checking” was routine. If Marines entered a house where a man was wounded, instead of checking to see if he needed medical aid, they shot him to make sure he was dead, he testified.
“If somebody is worth shooting once, they’re worth shooting twice,” he said.