(KWTX) The family of a soldier from Central Texas who has spent the past 11 years of his life behind bars for a horrendous crime is on a mission for justice, arguing there are serious questions about the soldier's conviction.
First Sgt. John Hatley, a highly-decorated soldier who served 20 years in the military, is being held in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. (Courtesy photo)
First Sgt. John Hatley, a highly-decorated soldier who served 20 years in the military, is being held in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., which is home to some of the "worst of the worst" offenders in the military.
Hatley, who went to school in Groesbeck, was convicted of killing four detainees in Iraq and dumping their bodies in a canal.
Prosecutors said the detainees were bound and gagged before they were shot and killed by Hatley.
The soldier was on his way home from his last battle and looking forward to retirement, when he was arrested and charged in connection with the killings.
Hatley's family has spent the past 11 years looking for answers regarding the investigation and the circumstances of the soldier's conviction.
"He was always a protector, always for the underdog," said Darryl Hatley, the soldier's father.
"His soldiers would have followed him into hell with a water pistol."
Darryl Hatley said his son had more than 300 firefights to his credit.
The family argues the case against the soldier never would have ended in conviction in a civilian court.
Military courts are different; soldiers aren't afforded the same constitutional protections as civilians.
"During this yearlong investigation, what did they do? They took a dive team, dug the canal, no bodies, went door to door knocking to see if there were any missing persons: no missing persons," said June Hatley-Wietzikoski, Hatley's sister.
"They went and asked the man who owned the land: 'has there been anything happen on your property?' ... No. Zero evidence."
"I had the upmost respect for the military justice system until my son got involved in the military justice system," said Darryl Hatley,
"My opinion has changed completely."
The Hatley Family turned to their congressman, U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, for help.
They said Flores was skeptical and hesitant at first, but after visiting John Hatley in prison and looking deeper into his case, Flores realized something was not right.
"When you look at the witnesses who testified against him, they each had issues in their military history that caused them to agree to plea deals to testify against Sgt. Hatley," said Flores.
"I am just wondering if this was a trial that could stand up on its own merits."
Flores told KWTX he learned two soldiers who testified against John Hatley may have had an axe to grind and faced discipline for other issues.
"They said, 'Hey we're after John Hatley because he's the senior officer, or considered the senior officer, we're after him. Now you're going to give us the information we need. Now if you'll confess, we'll see you get low level of punishment, probably just a reprimand.' Well, they were lying through their teeth," said Darryl Hatley.
Even though John Hatley's life sentence has been reduced to 25 years, his father remains unsatisfied.
"I've got one son and he spent almost his entire career working for the liberty of countries and people. And he comes back - now I can see him being a prisoner of war in Iraq - but to think that he's a pow in America, in my wildest dreams I never thought it would happen," said Darryl Hatley.
The two other soldiers who confessed have already been paroled.
John Hatley has been before the parole board three times and has received the same answer each time—no.
Rep. Flores has been there for two of those hearings.
"They haven't paroled Hatley yet because they're demanding that he admit to guilt before they'll consider anything else and I think that's just wrong," said Flores.
When the Baylor Lady Bears visited the White House after their national championship, Flores had another agenda on his mind.
He was concerned John Hatley and other soldiers may have been given a raw deal.
"I sat down with the president after they left the office and I gave him a card that had several prisoners’ names on it and I explained the situation, the differences between the (Uniform Code of Military Justice) and constitutional (law) and I asked him if he'd be willing to look into pardons for these people and he said he would," said Flores.
A presidential pardon for John Hatley has not come and the soldier refuses to confess to something he says he didn't do. So his family is left waiting, hoping and praying, wondering why?
They have a theory.
"I think they were using John as a scapegoat. I believe that they were trying to appease. They were more worried about how they looked to Iraqis than they were in taking care of their own people," said Hatley-Wietzikoski.
Flores said he is working with his colleagues to ensure soldiers can get the same constitutional protections as civilians.
The congressman said he will be present at Hatley's next parole hearing, testifying on his behalf.
There is one more thing he wants to see before his retirement from Congress; John Hatley walking out of Leavenworth a free man.
"I'm not done yet I'm still going to be harassing the president as well," said Flores.
The family has all their hopes riding on this next parole hearing or a pardon from the president. They are counting the days until they can finally welcome their soldier back home.
"He's coming back to Groesbeck. The city has given him so much support he loves it, loves the people," the soldier's father said.
John Hatley's next parole hearing is on Oct. 17.
KWTX reached out to the parole board and the pentagon for comment and is waiting for a response.