Camp Pendleton, Calif. — A Marine pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of assault and conspiracy to obstruct justice in the death of an Iraqi civilian in April.
Pfc. John J. Jodka III, 20, entered the pleas through his attorney, Joseph Casas, and then began testifying.
He was one of seven Marines and a Navy corpsman initially charged with murder, kidnapping, conspiracy, assault and housebreaking in the killing of 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Awad in the Iraqi town of Hamdania.
Jodka - the squad's youngest and lowest-ranked member - spoke quickly as he described the night of Awad's killing.
He said the squad agreed to a plan by squad leader Sgt. Lawrence G. Hutchins to kidnap and kill a known insurgent. Jodka said he fired his weapon at the victim, but he said he thought the man was the insurgent they had been seeking.
Jodka said they talked about what had happened on a roof back at their base.
"Once on the roof, Sgt. Hutchins gathered members of the squad and he said if anyone asks what happened, the words he used were, 'You know what to say.' I took that to mean if anyone asked, we would say that we had seen this man approach with a shovel and begin digging and that he engaged us and that we had lawfully engaged him," Jodka said.
The Navy corpsman charged in the case, Petty Officer 3rd Class Melson J. Bacos, pleaded guilty earlier this month to kidnapping and conspiracy and also testified.
At his court-martial, Bacos testified that he and the Marines were searching for a known insurgent who had been captured three times and released. The group approached a house where the insurgent was believed to be hiding, but when someone inside woke up, the Marines instead went to another home and grabbed Awad, Bacos said.
The squad took Awad to a roadside hole and shot him before planting a shovel and AK-47 to make it appear he was an insurgent planting a bomb, he said.
Bacos was sentenced to a year's confinement; murder and other charges were dropped.
Former Army prosecutor Tom Umberg said other Marines in the case might follow Bacos' and Jodka's lead and negotiate pleas.
"As the government's evidence gets stronger, the defendants start to look around," Umberg said.
But he acknowledged that deciding to make a deal would be difficult.
"You are trained from day one to support your buddy, and also taught that there are certain values as a soldier or Marine you are fighting to uphold," he said. "The resolution for a young man can be heart-wrenching."
Five other Marines face courts-martial. A decision has not yet been announced on whether Hutchins will be referred to a court-martial.
Jodka's grandfather, Joe Snodgrass, 71, said his grandson had paid for any wrongdoing.
"He was trained to follow his leaders and do as they commanded without questioning," Snodgrass said. "He was trying to be the best Marine possible."