OCEANSIDE, Calif. -- Marine Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins called his wife as soon as he learned the military's highest court had ordered his immediate release after overturning his murder conviction in a major Iraq war crime.
Reyna Hutchins' response was one of genuine disbelief: "Is it for real? Are we sure this time?" she asked.
The 29-year-old Marine couldn't answer. He still doesn't know himself whether he truly is a free man.
Hutchins has had his conviction overturned twice in the past three years by military courts after rulings that there were errors in the handling of his case.
The latest ruling was made on June 26 when the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces found Navy interrogators violated his rights by holding him in solitary confinement for seven days after he was accused of murder in the death of a retired Iraqi policeman in the village of Hamdania in 2006.
Hutchins spoke to reporters Friday for the first time since his release last month.
Under the military justice system, the Navy can still order his case to be retried or it can appeal to the Supreme Court to intervene. It is expected to announce its decision over the next few months.
In the meantime, Hutchins must remain in the Marine Corps, even though he wants out. He has been assigned his old job at Camp Pendleton as a marksmanship instructor.
He said his release after 7 1/2 years in the brig has been "surreal," and he has felt anxious at times. He tells people he's been on a long deployment.
So he is free but not free. He wants to move forward but is still anchored by his past. He says he loves his Marine brotherhood but not the institution. And he says, he may never, emotionally speaking, be entirely free.
"This man's death will stay with me for the rest of my life," he said.
Hutchins lost his 20s to the war -- first in fighting it and then in serving more than half of an 11-year sentence in the brig.
The son and grandson of Marines, Hutchins, of Plymouth , Mass., enlisted at the age of 21, right after 9/11.
He led an eight-man squad accused of kidnapping retired Iraqi policeman Hashim Ibrahim Awad from his home in April 2006, marching him to a ditch and shooting him to death in Hamdania, a small village in Al Anbar province.
Hutchins has said he thought the man -- who turned out to be a retired policeman -- was an insurgent leader. Prosecutors accused the squad of planting a shovel and AK-47 to make it appear he was an insurgent.
The six other Marines and a Navy corpsman in his squad served less than 18 months locked up.
While Hutchins is not allowed to discuss that fateful day while it remains in legal limbo, he said it was among many horrible days.
"I was in war for 4 1/2 months," he said. "Before this happened, we had been in firefights almost every day. I tried to help an Iraqi individual who had a bullet go through his throat as his wife sat next to him. Before the Iraqi policeman was killed, there had been IEDs going off in the area."
He added that "all these things weigh on my conscience."
A lower court overturned his conviction three years ago, ruling his trial in 2007 was unfair because his lead defense lawyer quit shortly before it began. But the military's highest court at that time overruled that decision, saying the problem was not grave enough to throw out the conviction. Hutchins was returned to the brig after eight months working at a desk job at Camp Pendleton.
The day he went back into custody, his wife found out she was pregnant with their second child, a boy. His daughter is 8. His parents are losing his childhood home over his $120,000 legal bill, he said.
"It's been 7 1/2 years," he said. "I've missed my son's birth, my family's birthdays, Christmases. These things I won't get back."
He is spending as much time as possible with them now, not knowing his future.