CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Marine Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III put on his uniform and reported for duty Tuesday despite lingering accusations that he killed an unarmed Iraqi man in what became a major war crime case.
Hutchins, 26, of Plymouth, Mass., spent the past fours years in a military prison after being convicted of murdering a 52-year-old Iraqi man in the village of Hamdania in 2006.
He was released June 14 after a military appeals court ruled he had an unfair trial in 2007 and threw out his conviction.
The case is now in the hands of a higher court that can affirm or reverse the April ruling.
Hutchins told The Associated Press he fears the Navy will be watching his every move to see if it can get him back in jail since his conviction was a major victory in the government effort to go after U.S. troops who kill unarmed Iraqis.
"I'm afraid I'm not going to get that fair treatment because of the political ramifications that I'm being used for," said Hutchins, who donned his crisply ironed Marine uniform at a friend's home in nearby Oceanside before heading to the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego.
The back window of a truck in the driveway read: "Free Larry."
Hutchins will handle the logistics of training exercises at the base while his case is being appealed by the Navy.
Hutchins is under no restrictions, and the Marine Corps has said he will be treated like any other Marine but will not be deployed because of the legal situation.
Navy prosecutors say Hutchins led a squad that dragged Hashim Ibrahim Awad from his home, shot him in a ditch then planted a shovel and AK-47 to make it appear he was an insurgent.
Hutchins said he feels Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is out to get him because Mabus told the Marine Corps Times last year that he believes Hutchins was the ringleader in a murder plot and attempted cover-up, and that Hutchins should complete the full prison sentence.
"I don't think any Marine should be used as a political tool, but I'm walking on a razor's edge as it is with the Navy secretary saying what he has said and tainting the jury pool," Hutchins said.
Mabus' office said he is precluded from commenting since the case is under appeal. Prosecutors said they are preparing an appelate brief that will detail their case.
Hutchins has maintained that he was not present at the killing, and that his squad radioed him to tell him the man was an insurgent leader. Hutchins said the death haunts him. but he declined to discuss specifics on the advice of his lawyer.
"If I could take this all back and do over, I definitely would not have condoned what happened," Hutchins said. "Marines pay for it. Families pay for it. I would never put anybody through this. It's one of those things I have to live with."
Hutchins was convicted of murder and sentenced to 14 years, a term later reduced to 11 years. The six other Marines and Navy corpsman in his squad served less than 18 months.
Hutchins said he harbors no ill feelings toward his squad mates. He has been ordered not to talk to them while the case is ongoing, but he hopes to someday have a beer and "talk war stories" with them.
After their release, several of the squad members worked for the Headquarters Battalion, where Hutchins has been assigned. He said they left a good record.
In the 10 days since his release, Hutchins has visited with his parents and 6-year-old daughter after they flew from Massachusetts.
He has been sleeping on base but plans to move into his friend's home. He believes his conviction will not be reinstated.
"I had to go out and buy a wallet, get my Social Security card, my birth certificate, military ID, bank card – I'm literally starting my life over from nothing," he said.
His fellow Marines have welcomed him and haven't asked questions, he said.
"This is absolutely as if it never happened. I'm back in the Marine Corps," Hutchins said, adding that "surreal is an understatement" to describe how he feels.
A ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces will likely come sometime next year.