- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (AP) — A military judge granted a Marine corporal’s request yesterday to withdraw his guilty plea to charges of murder in the death of an unarmed Iraqi civilian who was dragged from his home and shot.

Cpl. Trent Thomas asked to change the plea, saying he no longer believes he is guilty. Cpl. Thomas now says he believes he was following a lawful order from his superiors.

“Sir, when my country gives me an order, I follow it,” he told the judge, Lt. Col. Tracy Daley.

Cpl. Thomas, 25, had pleaded guilty Jan. 18 to eight felonies including kidnapping, murder and assault. He was one of a squad of seven Marines and a sailor accused last year of hatching a plot to kill an Iraqi in the town of Hamdania. Four others pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Cpl. Thomas, the squad’s second in command, could face life in prison.

Outside court, Thomas attorney Victor Kelley said his client had an “epiphany” Wednesday night and decided to withdraw his pleas. “Corporal Thomas has always wanted to fight it,” Mr. Kelley said of the charges.

The request to withdraw the pleas came at the beginning of the second day of Cpl. Thomas’ sentencing hearing.

On Wednesday, the Navy medic, who said he was one of Cpl. Thomas’ closest friends, testified that the Marine corporal played an instrumental role in carrying out the kidnapping and murder.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Melson J. Bacos testified that Cpl. Thomas, along with Cpl. Marshall Magincalda, entered the home of Hashim Ibrahim Awad on April 26 while Bacos and Lance Cpl. Robert Pennington waited outside. Cpl. Thomas and Cpl. Magincalda returned with a confused-looking Mr. Awad, the Navy petty officer said, then the troops started walking him away from the house.

For much of that march, Cpl. Thomas held onto Mr. Awad, Bacos said.

“He was grabbing him, pushing him forward,” Bacos said. “If he was talking, he told him to shut up, be quiet.”

Bacos said the squad forced Mr. Awad into a hole and shot him, then tried to cover it up by placing an AK-47 and shovel by his body to make it look like he was an insurgent planting a bomb.

Prosecutors — as well as other squad members who made plea deals — have said the troops wanted to kill an Iraqi insurgent they suspected of planting bombs. They couldn’t find the man, and instead kidnapped Mr. Awad, according to court testimony.

Bacos, testifying about 12 feet from where Cpl. Thomas sat, did not make eye contact with his friend, whom he met in 2004 and served with on an earlier Iraq combat tour. When a prosecutor asked Bacos whether it was difficult to testify about Cpl. Thomas, he said, “It’s not easy at all, sir.”

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