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March 26th, 2010 - Judge Rules Marine Must Stand Trial

News article from North County Times

Summary of the Haditha Massacre

Judge Rules Marine Must Stand Trial

Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich sought to have manslaughter charges dismissed


By Mark Walker

North County Times

March 26, 2010


Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, the sole remaining defendant in the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians during the height of the Iraq war, was ordered to court-martial Friday on manslaughter, aggravated assault and related charges.


The order came from Lt. Col. David Jones, a military judge who turned aside an effort by Wuterich's attorneys to dismiss the charges because of unlawful command influence.


Wuterich, 30, said he was upset and disappointed, but "happy to see a trial date and that this will be over soon."


"These past five years have been a long five years," he said of the Nov. 19, 2005, slayings that occurred in the city of Haditha after a roadside bomb destroyed a Humvee, killing one Marine and injuring two others. "It's tough being the last guy going through this, but I'm confident everything will turn out how it should."


He paused when asked how he views the outcome for seven co-defendants, six of whom were cleared when their charges were dismissed at the pretrial stage and one who was acquitted at trial.


"Seeing everyone else exonerated and out now ... I have mixed feelings about it," said Wuterich, a Connecticut native, without elaborating.


Wuterich's case will be decided by a military jury with at least one-third of the panel made up of enlisted Marines. His attorneys said they expect most of the panel will be composed of combat veterans well-versed in the reality of war. The military trial is scheduled to start Sept. 13.


Wuterich, who was on his first combat assignment at Haditha, is accused of leading his squad from Camp Pendleton's 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment in an assault on a series of homes in search of those responsible for the bombing.


As he and his troops stormed those homes, 19 men, women and children were killed, nearly all of whom were shown to be unarmed.


Five men who drove up in a car immediately after the bombing also were shot and killed.


Investigators have testified that none of the slain could be matched to any lists of known or suspected insurgents.


While none of the victims were deemed insurgents, three men killed by Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt inside one of the homes had armed themselves and were thus determined to have been legitimate targets.


Murder charges against Sharratt were dismissed on that finding.


Sharratt also was issued a letter by then-Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the Marine Corps officer overseeing the Haditha cases at the time, who wrote about the fog of war that permeated the entire story of what happened in Haditha.


"Operational, moral and legal imperatives demand that we Marines stay true to our own standards and maintain compliance with the law of war in this morally bruising environment," Mattis wrote. "With the dismissal of these charges, you may fairly conclude that you did your best to live up to these standards ... in the face of life or death decisions made by you in a matter of seconds in combat."


The attempt to have Wuterich's charges thrown out was tied to a legal adviser to Mattis. The adviser was an initial investigator into the Haditha killings and had issued an opinion that crimes were apparently committed. The adviser is a potential prosecution witness.


The adviser's presence at meetings with Mattis and the general who succeeded him in 2007 was deemed to have constituted the appearance of unlawful influence in the case against the battalion commander at Haditha, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani.


That ruling in Chessani's case resulted in dereliction of duty charges against him being dismissed. Wuterich's attorneys argued the same principle applied in their case.


But Jones ruled that Mattis and his successor, now-retired Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland, had adequately demonstrated in testimony this week that neither was unlawfully influenced.


"The generals really did their homework," Jones said.


While he agreed that an appearance of unlawful influence is present, Jones said prosecutors had demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that decisions by both generals that led to Wuterich facing trial were made impartially.


"Any apparent unlawful command influence did not and will not affect the proceedings," Jones said during a 40-minute reading of his decision inside a base courtroom.


In Iraq, a relative of several of the slain Iraqis told the Associated Press that all of the Marines involved in the incident had blood on their hands.


Iman Walid Abdul-Hamid, 14, told the AP that he lost seven family members in the attack, including his parents, grandparents, two uncles and a brother.


"We were sleeping. My father was reciting (the) Quran in another room, when the soldiers broke the door and shot him dead," he said. "These killers should be killed. Their case should not be closed before they are justly tried. It is not right to throw away this case."


The manslaughter charges allege Wuterich is responsible for nine of the 24 deaths. Haytham Faraj, one of his three attorneys, told Jones that Wuterich will enter not guilty pleas to all the charges at a scheduled hearing in July.


In the meantime, Wuterich remains on duty at Camp Pendleton working in base maintenance. He said he has twice tried to redeploy, but was turned down.


He did have a recent assignment training Marines at the Marine Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, but was ordered back to Camp Pendleton after a senior commander learned who he was and the charges he was facing.


In his off-duty hours, Wuterich said he's coaching youth soccer and attending Saddleback College in Orange County, taking computer courses.


"I'm doing everything I can to keep my mind off the case," he said.


The failure to have Wuterich's charges thrown out came as a surprise to Brian Rooney, one of Chessani's attorneys.


"If unlawful command influence was present for one, I can't imagine why it's not present for all, especially in this case," Rooney said, adding he's certain the defense will use that as one basis of appeal if Wuterich is convicted of charges that could land him behind bars for years.


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