Maverick in a Military Town

— Agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service say that last April 26, seven Marines based at Camp Pendleton joined with a Navy medic to enter the rural town of Hamdaniya, west of Baghdad, and without provocation kidnapped and murdered a 52-year-old man named Hashim Ibrahim Awad.

A few days later, on May 1, at one of the meetings regularly held between local residents and U.S. Marine Corps officials, citizens of Hamdaniya talked of Awad's death. After less than a week, on May 7, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service began a formal probe. Five days later, on May 12, Marine Corps officials identified a dozen American military suspects and restricted them to their base, Camp Fallujah, in Iraq. By May 25, they had been returned to Pendleton and eight of those suspects, including Private First Class John J. Jodka III of Encinitas, had been put in the brig.

Amid reports that the Marines were placed in chains every time they left their cells -- even to talk with attorneys or visit with parents, albeit through a thick pane of glass -- civilians on June 11 gathered outside the main Camp Pendleton gates to protest the treatment of the Marines, none of whom had yet been charged. The demonstrators dubbed the Marines and the corpsman the Pendleton Eight.

Four days later, Camp Pendleton officials tried to explain. In a statement issued to the press, they said that "the maximum level of restraint" was being used "due to the preliminary findings of the ongoing investigation."

The next day, a Friday, officials changed their minds. They would allow parents to meet their children in the dining hall and to give them a hug. The announcement came just in time for the four visiting hours, two on Saturday and two on Sunday, that the Corps had authorized for the parents.

On June 21, ten days after the first public demonstration and five days after the unshackling of the Pendleton Eight, officials of the Marine Corps announced at a press conference the charges against the Marines and the corpsman. The charges included kidnapping, assault, and premeditated murder. If found guilty at a court-martial, every one of the Eight would face the death penalty.

The next day, documents that detailed the charges were leaked to reporters. The Marines had staked out an intersection in Hamdaniya, waiting for someone to plant roadside explosives. No one showed up and, according to the Associated Press, four members of the group went into a nearby house, stole a shovel and an AK-47, then set off in search of an alleged insurgent named Saleh Gowad. When they did not find him, they went into another house where they found Hashim Ibrahim Awad. He was allegedly kidnapped. He was forced to the ground, his feet were bound, and he was put in a wide hole.

According to the North County Times, the squad leader, a sergeant, reported in by radio that the unit saw a man digging with a shovel and the man had fired at them.

Then five members of the group fired their own M-16 rifles and M-249 automatics and Awad was killed.

Afterward, one of the Eight shot off several rounds from the stolen AK-47; another collected the shell casings and put them by the body to make it look as if Awad had fired the rifle. Another man cleaned fingerprints from the AK-47 and placed the weapon in the hands of the corpse.

The stolen shovel was left near the body, allegedly by Private First Class John J. Jodka III, a 20-year-old enlistee who'd finished boot camp at the end of July 2005 and shipped out for Iraq last January as a member of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.

Jodka had graduated from San Dieguito Academy in Encinitas in 2004 with good enough grades to enter the University of California, Riverside, but after one quarter he'd dropped out to enlist. Since the September 11 attacks, said his father, John Jodka Jr., the son had been searching for the right way to respond and thought that the role of citizen-soldier would best serve to carry out what he felt were his obligations as an American. Jodka had been in Iraq about three months when he encountered Hashim Ibrahim Awad.

On August 3, the Corps announced assault charges against six Marines in another incident in Hamdaniya. Three of the Marines were also suspects in the killing of Awad. Jodka was not among them. One, Sergeant Lawrence G. Hutchins III, was alleged to have put a loaded pistol in the mouth of an Iraqi man named Khalid Hamad Daham, choked another man, and assaulted a third. Two other Marines, Corporal Trent Thomas and Lance Corporal Jerry E. Shumate Jr., were alleged to have used knees and fists to beat Daham. The beatings were said to have occurred on April 10, about two weeks before Awad was killed.

On August 20, Jodka and three others waived their right to the grand-jury-type hearing known as Article 32, held to determine whether a court-martial is warranted. They asked to go straight to trial. One of Jodka's attorneys, Joseph Casas, a former Marine himself, said the Article 32 hearing was shaping up as a pointless exercise. He said the defense was denied access to the key evidence that would show Jodka to be innocent. An attorney for another defendant, Trent Thomas, said that dragging things out just gives the government "more time to try to improve an otherwise very bad case."

Two days later, the requests were rejected. In a statement, the Corps said that Lieutenant General James N. Mattis, the three-star general who'd taken over as base commander just the week before, wanted to hold the Article 32 hearings. According to the statement, an "impartial analysis of the charges and evidence afforded by an Article 32 investigation" would allow Mattis to "make a fair and impartial decision on the disposition of these cases."

On Wednesday, August 30, Jodka and one of his brothers in arms, Corporal Marshall Magincalda, were escorted from the brig to two separate courthouses at the Marine base and, at around 9:00 a.m., their Article 32 hearings began. Unlike grand jury proceedings, which are closed, these hearings were open to the press.

More than 50 reporters from news organizations all over the country watched Magincalda's session on closed-circuit television from a new media center, estimated to cost $700,000, built on the top floor of a warehouse building hard by a Taco Bell Express and a few hundred yards from the courtrooms.

The courtroom chosen for the Jodka hearing had no TV hookup. With the room filling up with family, four defense attorneys, and two military prosecutors, the Marines had room for only one journalist and a sketch artist. The press corps chose Associated Press court reporter Linda Deutsch, whose career harkens back to the Charles Manson trials, to be the pool representative.

Magincalda's hearing was over within an hour. The big news, revealed by the prosecutor: confessions had been obtained. The military prosecutor, Captain Nicholas L. Gannon, said that two Marines -- Sergeant Lawrence G. Hutchins III and Corporal Trent D. Thomas -- had confessed to the kidnapping and killing of Hashim Ibrahim Awad. A third defendant, Lance Corporal Robert Pennington, had outlined an alleged conspiracy to cover up the murder by leaving fake evidence and filing a false report.

Jodka's hearing lasted several hours. His defense team argued that the confessions and statements were not only untrue but gained through coercion. The confessions weren't read at either hearing; the presiding officers accepted defense arguments that public disclosure could taint a jury pool and compromise the Marines' right to a fair trial. Likewise, a Naval Criminal Investigative Service report that included statements made by Iraqis was not read in open court.

But the big news for Jodka was that he no longer faced the death penalty. The prosecutor, Lieutenant Colonel John Baker, said the government would not seek the ultimate punishment because that would be inappropriate. Deutsch, the pool reporter from the Associated Press, told her colleagues after the hearing that Baker did not elaborate. A Marine spokesman said the decision applied only to Jodka.

Asked how Jodka reacted, Deutsch said she was so busy taking notes she did not have a chance to look up in time. But people who were in the courtroom, including Jodka's mother, Carolyn, talked of a subdued yet audible collective sigh of relief and a visible relaxing of everyone's posture.

The so-called charging documents, as reported in the press, may suggest why Jodka was spared death. The documents do not put him among those in the platoon who stole the shovel and the rifle from the Iraqi household nor among those who allegedly forced Awad to the ground and bound his feet. Although the documents state that Jodka fired his M-249 automatic weapon, nothing that's come out indicates that his were the bullets that killed the Iraqi or that ammunition from an M-249 was found lodged in Awad's body. The documents allege that Jodka planted the shovel near the body and that he lied afterward to investigators about what happened.

To Neil Turner of Carlsbad, who turned out on Saturday, September 2, to demonstrate outside the main gate at Pendleton along with some 60 others, the Pendleton Eight are pawns in a chess game. They're being used, Turner said, as a way for the United States to stay friends with Iraqis who insist on hard and swift punishment for the Marines they're convinced killed Awad. The demonstrations were in their 12th week.

"It's political," said Turner, who spent nine years in the Army and left with a captain's rank. "The reason for it is to please the government over there and the Islamic group that we're working with. We want to show them we're tough on our own [people]."

He added, "The only reason you incarcerate someone before you find them guilty is if they're a flight risk or a threat to the public. These servicemen are neither."

Turner said the protesters would demonstrate every Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. as long as any member of the Pendleton Eight remains in the brig.

"I know my son, and I believe in his innocence," said Carolyn Jodka, who calls her son J.J. "I am not privy to the exact details of what went on that day, but my son looked me in the eye and said, 'Mom, you have nothing to worry about. I am innocent, and I will walk out of here a free man.' That's pretty powerful for a teenager to look a parent right in the eye, unflinchingly, and make a statement like that."

The hearing officer in Jodka's case, Colonel Paul L. Pugliese, will make a recommendation to Lieutenant General Mattis. It's not clear when that will happen. A recommendation is also expected from the base legal office. Mattis will decide whether to convene a court-martial, dismiss the case, or refer it for an administrative action.

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