Pentagon threatened Marines with death

Pentagon investigators threatened the death penalty and used other coercive techniques to obtain statements from some of the seven Marines and a Navy corpsman jailed for the shooting death of an Iraqi civilian, two defense lawyers say.

Attorney Jane Siegel, who represents Marine Pfc. John Jodka, 20, said Naval Criminal Investigative Service officials spoke to her client three times after he was taken into custody May 12. Jodka was questioned for up to eight hours at a time and was not offered water or toilet breaks, Siegel said.

“They used some really heavy-handed tactics to extract the information,” Siegel said, adding that her client was not read his rights prior to questioning — a fundamental right to which all accused troops are entitled — and was threatened with the death penalty.

Jeremiah Sullivan III, the attorney representing the unidentified Navy medic, said his client was treated similarly.

Marine Lt. Col. Scott Fazekas, a Pentagon spokesman, referred questions to Camp Pendleton, where the troops are being held. Officials there declined to comment.

Gary D. Solis, a former Marine Corps prosecutor and judge advocate who teaches law of war at Georgetown University Law Center, said investigators were within their rights to threaten a suspect with the death penalty since it is the maximum sentence for premeditated murder.

If statements are to be used in a trial, a military judge must first decide that they were given voluntarily, Solis said. If the defense can argue this was not the case then the statements could be ruled inadmissible.

“To be questioned for eight hours does not necessarily make it an inadmissible statement,” Solis said. “But you have to look at the circumstances that surrounded those eight hours.”

The Pentagon began investigating shortly after an Iraqi man was killed on April 26 in Hamdania, west of Baghdad. Military officials have said little publicly about the man’s death, but a senior Pentagon official with direct knowledge of the investigation said evidence so far indicates troops entered the town in search of an insurgent and, failing to find him, grabbed an unarmed man from his home and shot him.

After the killing, the troops planted a shovel and an AK-47 rifle at the scene to make it appear the man was trying to plant an explosive device, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The Pentagon originally said the incident occurred in Hamandiyah but officials later acknowledged they had misidentified the town and that the incident happened in Hamdania.

The troops being held at Camp Pendleton served with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, and are members of the battalion’s Kilo Company. The highest-ranking among them is a staff sergeant.

More than two weeks ago, Sullivan said he expected murder and kidnapping charges would be brought soon, and a Pentagon official confirmed charges were imminent. But none has been filed and the delay has not been explained.

According to Marine spokesman Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, charges must be filed within 120 days of servicemembers being taken into custody. Gibson put that date at May 24, which would mean charges might not be filed until September.

Siegel and Sullivan said they do not know what exactly the troops told their interrogators, and they complained that the Pentagon has not shared information about the investigation. They declined to say what they have been told about the killing.

Until Thursday the Marines and Navy corpsman were held at a maximum level of security at Camp Pendleton and were shackled whenever they left their cells. Their security level now has been reclassified to a lower level and they are allowed one hour’s recreation daily without shackles, Camp Pendleton spokesman Lt. Lawton King said.

Solis said even if the Marines are charged and convicted of murder it’s highly unlikely they would actually be executed. The president must approve such a penalty and that hasn’t happened in nearly 200 years, he said.

© 2006 The Associated Press