Military Plea Bargains Raise Questions of Justice

Four of the U.S. soldiers on trial for the murder of a disabled Iraqi man have reached plea bargains with military prosecutors, drastically minimizing the time they will spend in jail.

In June, the Pentagon announced that a group of Marines went to the home of the 52-year-old Iraqi, took him outside, shot him four times in the face, and then framed him to look like an insurgent.

"The accused are getting two deals," said Gary Solis, a former prosecutor at Camp Pendleton who teaches at the Georgetown University School of Law. "First of all, he pleads and gets a sentence shorter than he might otherwise get; for example an accused pled and the sentence was 18 months. The judge said he would have sentenced him to five years. And in addition, they’re pleading to reduced charges."

Marine infantryman Lance Cpl. Tyler A. Jackson pled guilty to aggravated assault and conspiracy to obstruct justice in exchange for the court dropping charges of murder, kidnapping, and larceny. He would have faced 15 years in prison but was sentenced Thursday to just 21 months in the brig.

Navy corpsman Melson Bacos, 21, was sentenced to a year in prison Tuesday after pleading guilty to kidnapping and conspiracy. Marine Pfc. John J. Jodka III, 20, also plead guilty and was sentenced Wednesday to 18 months.

The lawyer for Lance Cpl. Jerry Shumate said his client plans to plead guilty to aggravated assault and obstruction of justice.

"The prosecutors are showing maturity in understanding how difficult and dangerous it is to be an American soldier in Iraq," lawyer Steve Immel told OneWorld.

That outrages Gary Solis, the former prosecutor at Camp Pendleton.

"Who is representing the deceased in these cases if everyone gets to plea to reduced charges?" he asked rhetorically. "If everyone gets to plea to reduced charges, is the justice system working as it should? At some point the prosecutors need to prosecute."

Another problem, say watchdogs, is that a very small percentage of crimes committed by US troops result in prosecution at all.

"Look at the case of two young men killed in Bagram [Afghanistan]," said Rahul Mahajan, who runs the blog and serves on the steering committee of the antiwar organizing group United for Peace and Justice.

"They were killed by repeated strikes to their bodies that destroyed their tissue. The coroner wrote down the cause of death was homicide," he said. "Twenty-seven different soldiers were involved in killing these two men over a period of weeks. Nobody has been charged with anything more than minor crimes. The final upshot was they said that because they couldn’t determine which blow killed these people they couldn’t prosecute any one person for murder."

It’s difficult to know how many Iraqi and Afghan civilians have been killed by the US military. The military doesn’t keep records of how many people it kills.

Sarah Holewinski, Director of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, told OneWorld that while US law entitles victims to file claims with the US military, many Iraqis do not for security reasons.

"The country is in such disarray that it’s very hard for people who have been harmed by US operations to actually go to the claims offices," she said. "They can’t go outside their homes or their neighborhoods and certainly if they go to a claims office they could be targeted and kidnapped or killed."

The only public paper trail is an audit by the Pentagon’s Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. The audit of one "emergency fund" found the military provided more than $14 million to civilians in 2005 in compensation for death, injury, or property damage.

But the audit does not show how many families were compensated, and does not reveal how many were turned down and why.