The highest US military appeals court has overturned the murder conviction of a marine sergeant found guilty in 2007 of killing an Iraqi civilian they had captured, bound and gagged.

Three judges on the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces on Wednesday found Sergeant Lawrence Hutchins gave a statement to a US Navy investigator while in custody that should have been ruled inadmissible.

The court ruled that it "was an error for the military judge to admit the statement made by Hutchins," which was used at his court-martial.

"Therefore, notwithstanding the other evidence of Hutchins' guilt, there is a reasonable likelihood that the statement
contributed to the verdict," the court said.

The case stems from the 2006 death in Hamdania, Iraq, of Hashim Ibrahim Awad, 52, a father of 11 and grandfather of four. 

In 2007, a court-martial at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base north of San Diego sentenced Hutchins to 15 years in military prison after finding him guilty of unpremeditated murder, larceny and other crimes.

Hutchins was the leader of a squad that went on a mission aimed at stopping fighters' use of improvised explosive
devices.

Witnesses had testified that Hutchins and another marine shot Awad and placed an AK-47 and a shovel next to the
corpse to suggest he had been planting a bomb. 

Earlier, Awad had been bound and gagged at another location, according to a finding by a lower court of appeal for the military.

Violation of constitution

In its ruling on Wednesday, the US court said that in May 2006, a Navy investigator began to question Hutchins but he invoked his right to an attorney and was put under guard in a trailer.

Hutchins was not allowed to call a lawyer and no attorney was provided to him, according to the ruling written by Judge Charles Erdmann.

Seven days later, the investigator entered the trailer and asked to search Hutchins' belongings and the sergeant said he wanted to talk, the ruling states. 

The next day, Hutchins provided a written confession, the ruling stated.

The court found that after Hutchins requested an attorney - the investigator had initiated a conversation that led to Hutchins' admission.

The judge and two colleagues found that it was this incident that violated his constitutional right to remain silent.

A spokesman for Camp Pendleton where the 2007 court-martial was held said he could not comment on whether Hutchins might soon be released from custody.

Source: Agencies