CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- As hundreds of protesters picketed outside Camp Pendleton yesterday in support of seven Marines and a Navy corpsman charged with murder in the death of an Iraqi man, defense attorneys began preparing for a long legal battle.
Waving American flags and holding signs saying "God Bless Our Heroes" and "Liberate the Pendleton 8," demonstrators shouted and whistled as Marines entered and left the base. Many of the Marines honked their car horns, apparently in appreciation.
"I think they should all be freed - it's unjust what's happening to them," said Jani Tubis, 46, a real estate agent from San Diego. "They were just doing their job."
Marie Grischuk, 72, of Oceanside, the widow of a Marine, said she joined the protest "because it's just not right that they're in the brig. They were protecting our country against terrorists."
Meanwhile, military and civilian defense attorneys are preparing motions demanding a delay in the preliminary hearing, as well as seeking access to the autopsy report and statements given by Iraqis.
The troops, charged Wednesday with premeditated murder, kidnapping, conspiracy and related offenses, are an infantry squad from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, 1st Marine Regiment. The battalion, on its third tour in Iraq, is scheduled to return in August.
Those charged are Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III; Cpl. Trent Thomas: Lance Cpl. Tyler Jackson; Pfc. John Jodka; Lance Cpl. Jerry Shumate Jr.; Lance Cpl. Robert Pennington; Cpl. Marshall Magincalda; and Navy Corpsman Melson Bacos.
The Marines were allegedly on "ambush duty" outside the Iraqi village of Hamandiya on April 26 waiting to catch insurgents burying roadside bombs when they pushed their way into the home of a disabled 52-year-old Iraqi named Ashim Ibrahim Awad and dragged him outside.
Awad was allegedly pushed to the ground and then bound at his feet and hands. Five of the Marines are accused of shooting Awad with their M-16 and M-249 rifles. An AK-47 and a shovel were left near the body to make it appear Awad was an insurgent caught digging a hole to plant a roadside bomb, military investigators said.
Hutchins, the squad leader, then allegedly called in a phony story to Marines at the base camp and told his squad to lie about what happened.
After Awad's family protested to Marine authorities, the military launched an investigation. The Marines and the corpsman are now charged with lying to Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents by insisting that Awad was killed during a firefight.
When inconsistencies occurred in the Marines' accounts, a dozen troops were ordered back to Camp Pendleton. The eight who were charged last week have been in the brig since late May.
Military authorities and defense attorneys decline to confirm that some of the Marines have confessed in follow-up interviews with investigators.
Defense attorneys are expected to try to cast doubt on the truthfulness of the Iraqis interviewed by military investigators and allege that the investigators coerced misleading statements from the Marines and corpsman through intimidation and trickery.
"We have the best possible defense: innocence," said lawyer Joseph Casas, representing Jodka, 20, of nearby Encinitas.
As defense attorneys plan their strategies, families of the accused are pleading with the public for financial and moral support.
Tony Perry writes for the Los Angeles Times.