By Judy Royal
CAMP LEJEUNE, North Carolina (Reuters) - A U.S. Marine pleaded guilty on Wednesday to urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and then posing for photographs in a scene captured in a widely circulated video on the Internet and denounced by world leaders.
Staff Sergeant Edward W. Deptola said he knew desecrating the corpses and posing for the "trophy photographs" was wrong and he offered no excuse for the behavior during his court martial at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune.
"I was in a position to stop it and I did not," said Deptola, a native of Southold, New York, and married father of two.
Although the judge presiding at Deptola's trial recommended a stiffer sentence, the maximum penalty he will face under the terms of a pre-trial agreement is a reduction in rank to sergeant.
Deptola was among a group of Marines to face disciplinary action after the video, posted on YouTube and other websites in January 2012, showed four U.S. servicemen in camouflage combat uniforms urinating on several corpses.
One of them said, "have a nice day, buddy," during the footage and another Marine made a lewd joke.
Military officials said the actions depicted in the video occurred during a counter-insurgency operation in the vicinity of Sandala, Musa Qala District, in Afghanistan's Helmand Province on July 27, 2011.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other military leaders denounced the behavior and Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the video. Officials worried the video would stir up already strong anti-U.S. sentiment in Afghanistan after a decade of a war that had seen past cases of abuse.
Deptola, who is assigned to the Third Battalion, Second Marine Regiment at Camp Lejeune, pleaded guilty to being derelict in his duties by failing to properly supervise junior Marines and wrongfully posing for unofficial photos with human casualties.
He also admitted to urinating on one of the bodies and wrongfully and indiscriminately firing a recovered enemy machine gun.
Deptola said he and the others accused in the incident thought the dead fighters might have been responsible for killing a fellow Marine earlier.
A sergeant who worked in the same platoon as Deptola described him as a good leader and Deptola's defense attorney said he was "not a barbarian." The defense asked the military judge to consider Deptola's overall record of service since he enlisted in November 2003.
The judge, Lieutenant Colonel Nicole Hudspeth, recommended Deptola be reduced to the rank of private, jailed for six months, fined $5,000 and discharged for bad conduct - but acknowledged the sentence could not be enforced under the pre-trial agreement.
Lieutenant General Richard P. Mills, the commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, will issue a final ruling on Deptola's punishment within 120 days.
"You have walked into this courtroom with exceptional protection," Hudspeth told Deptola.
A fellow Marine at Camp Lejeune, Staff Sergeant Joseph W. Chamblin, pleaded guilty in December to urinating on a dead Taliban fighter's body and posing for photos.
A military judge ordered 30 days in jail, but an agreement reached ahead of his court martial limited Chamblin's punishment to no more than $500 in forfeited pay and a reduction in rank to sergeant.
Three other Marines pleaded guilty and were punished last August for their role in the video incident as part of a non-judicial military proceeding, according to the Marine Corps. Their names and specific punishments were not disclosed.
(Reporting by Judy Royal; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Paul Thomasch, Andrew Hay, Greg McCune, Cynthia Johnston and Andre Grenon)