Monday, February 23, 2009

"Pendleton 8"

A couple of years ago it was disturbing to read the story of a young Marine who had gone to the same Mukilteo high school as my kids. The Marine was being held in shackles in a San Diego military prison while awaiting trial for the April 2006 killing of a man in Iraq. The young Marine was on his third combat tour of duty. According to military reports, Marine Lance Cpl. Robert Pennington and six other Marines and a Navy medic plotted to seize and kill a suspected insurgent and then staged a scene to cover it up.

Reports assert that four of the men went to find their intended target but he wasn't home, instead grabbing a neighbor. The neighbor was led to a crater left by a roadside bomb, then tied up and tossed in. A sergeant gave the order to several fellow Marines to shoot the man.

Pennington was not one of those who shot. The men then placed a shovel and an AK-47 next to the body to make it appear the victim had been planting a roadside bomb. This occurred in the village of Hamdania Iraq.

The squad was incarcerated in Iraq and returned to the US in May 2006. The men were held in continued custody in the maximum security division of the Camp Pendleton brig as potentially dangerous and violent. Supporters dubbed them the "Pendleton 8" and conducted rallies in front of Camp Pendleton's main gate.

While he was awaiting trial, the presumption of innocence was abandoned and Pennington was kept in shackles. He also had difficulties getting medical treatment. His normal discharge date passed while he was in custody and his pay was stopped even though he had not yet been convicted of anything.

His parents set up a web site which told the story of their son, requested contributions for a defense fund, and contained pictures of supportive demonstrations in California and of neighbors holding candlelight vigil. They hired a civilian attorney to work with the three military lawyers for Pennington.

Within months of being accused, five of the eight men (including Pennington) pleaded guilty to a variety of reduced charges. The other three (including the sergeant) were tried and convicted. The sergeant, described as the leader and mastermind of the killing, was sentenced to fifteen years, later reduced to eleven.

As part of a plea bargain, Pennington pleaded guilty to kidnapping and conspiracy. He was not the first to plead guilty. He was to serve either the sentence imposed by the military judge or eight years, whichever was less. While awaiting sentencing the conditions of his confinement were improved.

Evidence was presented at the five-day sentencing hearing. On the website his family writes--

"We listened to Rob's testimony about that night, but also heard a lot of information that we never heard before about the previous two deployments. . . one of the most important things we learned in that courtroom was that Fallujah was far more horrific, far more devastating than any of us really understood. We watched film, listened to testimony and realized how devastating this was for the boys who fought that bloody battle."

"We knew something was wrong when Rob came home, but we took his word that he could handle it. That's what those grunts do, right? Suck it up . . . We did not think he was in any shape to return to Iraq after Fallujah, but we took the easy route and let him tell us what we really wanted to hear -- that he was really okay."

The judge sentenced Robert Pennington to fourteen years in a military prison, which was limited to 8 years by the plea bargain. He was also to receive a dishonorable discharge. Then in 2007 his commanding general made a clemency decision that reduced the sentence to 21 months of confinement and a bad conduct discharge.

Except for the sergeant who is still seeking an appeal and sentence reduction, none of the eight served more than 15 months behind bars due to a combination plea deals and clemency.

In December 2008 Robert Pennington was "working hard at a tack and feed store in Del Mar California as a truck loader and driver, doing well."

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