The judge handed the jury's findings to the senior member of the court. Cpl. Trent Thomas along with his attorney, Victor Kelly, slowly rose and stood while waiting to hear the court's decision. At stake for the 25-year-old Marine: either life in prison without the possibility of parole if found guilty of premeditated murder for actions taken while serving in Iraq, or being found not guilty and living as a free man.
"To Charge II a violation of Article 118 Premeditated Murder," the court announced, "we find not guilty." Cpl. Thomas walked out of the Camp Pendleton courtroom and returned home with his family.
However, the government now found itself in an unusual position. Five of Cpl. Thomas' unit mates were serving prison time after being charged with the exact same accusations and taking the same actions as Cpl. Thomas. The difference? He was the only one to challenge the government in court. The others accepted the prosecution's plea-bargain offer.
"In my opinion, the principal factor the five decided to accept the governments' plea-bargain offer, was the potential of life in the penitentiary without parole was just too intimidating," offered Victor Kelly.
And so goes a great untold story in America's war against Islamist extremists. "There are more members of our military accused of murder or serving time for murder than at any other time that I or my contemporaries can recall," defense attorney Anita Gorecki told me.
My inquiries to the House Armed Services Committee to verify the historical comparisons have gone unanswered. "Only the Defense Department has that information and they're not about to release it," said House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner, California Democrat.
Indeed, this asymmetrical war is unlike any other and some fear our military justice system may not be equipped to handle accusations of wrongdoing.
"Our soldiers are on edge 24/7. There is no front line to retreat from. There is no uniform to identify the enemy. You have layers of ROE [rules of engagement], stress, fatigue and when something goes wrong they face accusations that bring life sentences. I fear we may be eating our own," said retired Brig. Gen. David Brahms, a military defense lawyer who served as technical consultant to the movie "A Few Good Men."
Take the case of another American soldier, 24-year-old PFC Corey Clagett of South Carolina, who was accused of murder in connection with the deaths of three Iraqi insurgents he had taken as prisoners. Despite proclaiming his innocence, his JAG attorney " who was defending her first murder trial -- advised him to plead guilty and not risk life in prison without parole.
Rick Amato is a radio talk show host, Washington Times columnist, political commentator and a frequent guest on CNN. 'The Rick Amato Show' is heard on 1170 KCBQ in San Diego. Rick blogs at http://rickmato.townhall.com.
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