SAN DIEGO – The military’s highest court overturned a murder conviction Wednesday against a Camp Pendleton Marine in one of the most significant cases against American troops from the Iraq war.
The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces threw out the conviction of Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III of Plymouth, Mass., who has served about half of his 11-year sentence.
According to the ruling posted on the court’s website, the judges agreed with Hutchins, who claimed his constitutional rights were violated when he was held in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer for seven days during his 2006 interrogation in Iraq.
The decision is seen as a major blow to the military’s prosecution of Iraqi war crimes.
Hutchins led an eight-man squad accused of kidnapping an Iraqi man from his home in April 2006, marching him to a ditch and shooting him to death in the village of Hamdania.
Hutchins has said he thought the man – who turned out to be a retired policeman – was an insurgent leader. Prosecutors accused the squad of planting a shovel and AK-47 to make it appear he was an insurgent.
None of the other seven squad members served more than 18 months. The case was among the most serious Iraqi war crimes prosecuted by the government.
The move is the latest in a series of twists and turns for Hutchins, whose case already was overturned once by a lower court three years ago.
The lower court ruled Hutchins’ 2007 trial was unfair because his lead defense lawyer quit shortly before it began. The military’s highest court disagreed on that point and reinstated Hutchins’ conviction in 2011, sending him back to the brig after eight months working at a desk job at California’s Camp Pendleton. The high court said at the time that the problem wasn’t grave enough to warrant throwing out the conviction.
On Wednesday, it agreed with Hutchins’ latest petition.
Hutchins’ lawyer, Babu Kaza, said he expects him to now be released in days.
“Sgt. Hutchins and his family have suffered enough with this case, and it’s time for this to be over,” Kaza said. “Enough is enough.”
The Navy can appeal to the Supreme Court or send the case to the convening authority, who can either order a retrial or let the ruling stand.
Navy officials could not be immediately reached for comment.