If you are wondering why Lt. Watada is being so recalcitrant about deploying to Iraq, check out the second feature. Our psychopath . . er, brave fighting men in action.
Mistrial could be end of Watada case - Double-jeopardy prohibition
Portrait of a principled man
By MIKE BARBER
Thu, 08 Feb 2007 22:10 EST
FORT LEWIS -- The Army court-martial of 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, which ended in a mistrial Wednesday, may have stranger turns ahead: Prohibitions against double jeopardy may keep prosecutors from having a second trial, his lawyer and another legal expert say.
The opposition of Watada and his defense team to the mistrial, declared by the military judge and eventually endorsed by prosecutors after their case fell apart, opens the door for a double-jeopardy defense, said John Junker, a University of Washington law professor.
Double jeopardy, which forbids a person from being tried twice for the same crime, does not apply only after a verdict is rendered, but can apply after a jury is empaneled and witnesses have been called.
"The notion is that you can't just stop in the middle and say, 'I don't like the way it's going' and start over," Junker said. "If the defendant objected, it does raise the possibility" of double jeopardy, Junker said. "That would happen in a civilian court, and I presume in a military court. That doctrine comes from the Constitution."
Watada's case has drawn national attention and galvanized the anti-war movement. He is the first U.S. military officer publicly to refuse deployment to Iraq by stating the war is illegal and that he feels duty-bound to refuse unlawful orders.
Watada's trial was in its last day, and he was preparing to take the stand when the military judge, Lt. Col. John Head, raised the issue that led to the mistrial. That issue was a stipulation that Watada had signed and would be given to the jury as part of its instructions.
Head set a tentative retrial date in mid-March, though that date could be moved back.
Prosecutors had not decided last night whether they will retry Watada. Eric Seitz, Watada's civilian attorney, intends to fight to block the prosecutors from trying the lieutenant a second time.
Watada's supporters -- among the lucky few who gained access to the small military courtroom -- were excited at the dramatic turn of events.
"I continue to remain very hopeful my son will be exonerated," said Carolyn Ho, Watada's mother.
Ann Wright, a retired Army colonel and former diplomat who quit her post disputing the invasion of Iraq, said "the Army's case is a mess, and it reflects the mess the (Bush) administration is in also in Iraq."
Army officials said they were not disappointed in the outcome as Head's decision demonstrated the fairness of the military justice system and that the judge was looking out for Watada's interests.
Reading a prepared statement, Fort Lewis spokesman Joe Piek said: "The military judge ensures fairness in the proceedings, especially to the accused. In this case, the judge was concerned that the stipulation amounted to a confession by Lt. Watada to an offense to which he intended to plead not guilty."
Seitz, however, opposed the mistrial, saying Head "abused his discretion."
At the same time, said Seitz, who has been trying military cases since the Vietnam War, he had never seen a turn like this.
Seitz said Watada, who was ready to take the stand but never did, "was not happy that he does not get to get this over with," but also knows that the developments could lead to the end of the case against him.
The dramatic turn of events hinged on a stipulation of fact that Watada signed in a plea agreement more than a week ago. Under the plea deal, prosecutors dropped two charges of conduct unbecoming an officer against Watada. He was being tried this week on two other charges of conduct unbecoming an officer and one count of missing movement when his Stryker Brigade deployed to Iraq in June.
Head questioned Watada while the jury was out of the courtroom, which Seitz objected to but allowed, and legal experts such as Junker said they would consider that questioning "very unusual" in a civilian trial.
Head concluded that he could not accept Watada's statement. Although Watada had admitted to failing to deploy with his unit, it was not the same as admitting guilt, which prosecutors considered it to be, Head said.
"What did you understand that (the stipulation-of-fact) to mean? What does that mean to you?" the judge asked Watada after sparring with Seitz over his intention to question the lieutenant.
Of his refusal to get on the plane, Watada said: "To me it means to (not) participate in a war that I believed to be illegal."
Head asked if Watada believed the statement to be "confessional" to the charge of missing movement.
"No, I did not," Watada said.
If the stipulation couldn't be accepted, then the two charges that were dropped would be renewed. The plea agreement would have to be rejected. So the judge called a mistrial.
"We did not want a mistrial," Seitz said outside the courtroom. He said he believes that the prohibition against double jeopardy ought to keep prosecutors from trying Watada a second time. If they do, he will take the case to an appeals court, he said.
Since the start, Seitz was frustrated at seeing his defense, which included calling expert witnesses to testify about the legality of the war and the parameters of Watada's free speech rights, constricted to keep from putting the war on trial. Head has said he wanted the focus on the legality of Watada's actions, not on the legality of the war.
Yet Seitz said after the court-martial ended in mistrial that Watada's intentions are a significant part of his defense.
"There is no way around talking about why he didn't get on that plane, and that is the government's continuing dilemma in this case," Seitz said.
Had he been tried and convicted, Watada faced a maximum of four years in prison and dismissal from the service.
But for now, he continues to be an active-duty soldier, reporting for work every day at Fort Lewis.
Marine 'congratulated' men for murder of Iraqi civilian: witness
Thu, 08 Feb 2007 13:11 EST
CAMP PENDLETON, California - A US Marine squad leader congratulated soldiers "for getting away with murder" after an Iraqi civilian was bound and shot dead at point-blank range, a military court has heard.
Sergeant Lawrence Hutchins, who will stand trial for murder next month, made the comments after the abduction and killing of 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Award in Hamdania outside Baghdad last April, a witness testified.
Navy medic Melson Bacos, who was jailed for one year last September for his role in Awad's killing, recounted Hutchins' comments while giving evidence at a sentencing hearing for another Marine, Trent Thomas.
Bacos said that after Awad had been shot in a roadside hole, squad members had to work quickly to remove "zip ties" used to bind his hands and feet.
The squad wanted to make it look like they had just come upon the victim, when in fact they had dragged him from his home, Bacos said.
"When all was cleaned up, Hutchins said, 'Congratulations. We just got away with murder, gents,'" Bacos told the hearing at the Marines' Camp Pendleton base outside of San Diego.
Prosecutors say Hutchins, who is to stand trial on March 19, was the ringleader of the plot to kill Awad.
A hearing is ongoing to determine a sentence for Thomas, who pleaded guilty to unpremeditated murder last month in connection with the case. Thomas had earlier denied murder charges.
Thomas's sentencing hearing will continue on Thursday.
Five of the eight servicemen implicated in the killing have now admitted to charges connected to Awad's death, one of a string of incidents that has tarnished the reputation of US forces in raq.
Other witnesses involved in the case have testified that Awad was killed after the squad of soldiers failed to locate a suspected insurgent operating in the area west of Baghdad.
Awad was allegedly taken from his home and frog-marched to a hole, which Marines had dug to look like a roadside bomb crater.
He was then bound before being shot three times in the head. An AK-47 rifle was then left beside his body to create the impression he had been an insurgent planting a bomb.
Comment: Remember the stories of US forces planting explosives in the vehicles of Iraqi civilians stopped at checkpoints in order to create "terrorist attacks"? It isn't so hard to believe anymore, is it?