CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (AP) – It was some time after midnight on a dusty road in Iraq when Melson J. Bacos says he stood and watched as seven members of a Marine squadron executed an innocent Iraqi civilian.

“I knew what we were doing was wrong. I tried to say something, and then I decided to look away,” the 21-year-old Navy medic said Friday as he pleaded guilty to kidnapping and conspiracy charges in the death of Hashim Ibrahim Awad.

Speaking in a flat, unemotional voice, Bacos told Col. Steven Folsom, who presided over his court-martial in a cramped military courtroom, that he had urged the Marines to let Awad go and was offended when one told him he was being weak and should stop protesting.

“I felt I couldn’t stop it any more that day. They were going to do it. They were going to carry out the plan, so I continued on,” he said.

Prosecutors said Bacos helped the Marines cover up the killing by firing an AK-47 assault rifle into the air. It was later planted on Awad’s body to make it look like the 52-year-old Iraqi man was a terrorist.

“Why didn’t I just walk away?” Bacos asked from the witness stand before being sentenced.

“The answer to that question was I wanted to be part of the team. I wanted to be a respected corpman, but that is no excuse for immorality.”

Folsom sentenced Bacos to 10 years in prison but reduced the term to one year because of the plea agreement. That will be further reduced by time served. Other counts of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy were dropped in exchange for his cooperation.

The Marines awaiting courts-martial on charges including murder and conspiracy are Cpl. Marshall L. Magincalda, Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins, Cpl. Trent Thomas, Lance Cpl. Robert B. Pennington, Lance Cpl. Tyler A. Jackson, Pfc. John J. Jodka and Lance Cpl. Jerry E. Shumate Jr.

As the steady hum of an air conditioner competed with his soft voice, Bacos told of watching as Awad was thrown into a hole, then shot repeatedly.

“I witnessed Sgt. Hutchins dead check the man and fire three rounds into the man’s head,” Bacos testified. “Then Cpl. Thomas fired seven to 10 rounds into the man’s head.”

He said he saw Pennington put Awad’s fingerprints on the AK-47 and a shovel to make it look like the Marines had caught the man digging a hole in which he was going to place a roadside bomb.

Folsom was the only one to question Bacos, who recalled how the Marines had gathered under a tree and devised a plan to enter the village and kidnap and kill an insurgent who had been detained and released three times.

Hutchins, the squad leader, was “just mad that we kept letting him go and he was a known terrorist,” Bacos testified.

The group approached a house where the insurgent was believed to be hiding. But when someone inside woke up, the Marines instead went to another home and grabbed Awad, Bacos said.

He was taken from the home with his feet and hands bound and then placed in the hole, Bacos testified.

After the killing, Hutchins called a command center and reported the squad had seen a man digging a hole and wanted permission to fire at him.

After the killing, Bacos said, he was standing in the road when another Navy corpsman drove by. “He asked me what happened, and I was very vague,” said Bacos, who was assigned to provide medical assistance to the Marines. “I said, ‘I want you to remember something. We’re different. We’re not like these men.”‘

Bacos appeared in court in his white Navy dress uniform and wearing a Purple Heart his wife, Heather, said he was awarded during a previous tour of Iraq.

As he testified, his wife and father sat in the front row, and at one point he turned to his wife during a break and mouthed the words, “I love you.”

Military authorities prosecuted Bacos under the theory that he did nothing to stop Awad’s murder. He was the first of the eight to receive a general court-martial.

The Marines, who are being held in the brig at this sprawling seaside Marine base north of San Diego, are in various stages of the judicial process. They could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.

Bacos, also was held at Camp Pendleton but recently was transferred to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar for his safety.

Legal experts were split over exactly what his plea deal signifies for the case.

Laurie Levenson, a Loyola University law school professor and former federal prosecutor, said it could indicate the military’s case lacks physical evidence. Former Army prosecutor Tom Umberg suggested it might mean others soon will be cutting deals of their own.

“You don’t want to be the last guy standing. The first guy gets the best deal,” Umberg said.

Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, a Marine Corps spokesman, said Wednesday it would be inappropriate to comment on any possible negotiations between prosecutors and the accused.

An attorney for one of the Marines said Bacos can expect to be subjected to intense cross-examination if he is called to testify.

“This is just one guy who is going to tell the story as he sees it,” said defense attorney David Brahms.

AP-ES-10-06-06 2014EDT


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.