By Josh White and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 2, 2006
Criminal investigators are hoping to exhume the bodies of several Iraqi civilians allegedly gunned down by a group of U.S. Marines last year in the city of Haditha, aiming to recover potentially important forensic evidence, according to defense officials familiar with the investigation.
A source close to the inquiry said Naval Criminal Investigative Service officials have interviewed families of the dead several times and have visited the homes where the shootings allegedly occurred to collect as much evidence as possible. Exhuming the bodies could help investigators determine the distance at which shots were fired, the caliber of the bullets and the angles of the shots, possibly crucial details in determining how events unfolded and who might have been involved.
The possible evidence was disregarded at first because the slayings originally were not treated as crimes.
NCIS officials said the Nov. 19 incident was not reported to them as a criminal case until nearly four months later -- on March 12 -- and the failure of the Marine Corps to request assistance from investigators sooner could create legal complexities.
The delay already has presented many hurdles for investigators, who have had to rely on dated information, witnesses and suspects who had months to tailor their stories, and a lack of fairly routine forensic evidence that should have been collected at the time the civilians were killed, according to Defense Department officials, defense attorneys and sources close to the criminal probe.
"We are definitely starting with a full count," said one official close to the investigation, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the case. "There's plenty of shoulda, woulda, coulda to go around in this case. We have lots of disadvantages going in, but we will re-create the incident as best we can."
The NCIS is an independent criminal investigative agency that is not in the military chain of command. Its probe has included as many as 50 special agents, forensics investigators and support personnel operating in Iraq and in the United States, the largest homicide investigation of its type since the war in Iraq began in 2003, according to Navy officials.
Ed Buice, a spokesman for the NCIS at the Washington Navy Yard, said yesterday that criminal investigators learned of the Haditha incident on March 12 -- nearly 16 weeks after it occurred -- when the Marine Corps officially requested an investigation. The probe began immediately, and three NCIS agents based in Iraq went to Haditha within 24 hours, Buice said.
"The investigation is labor-intensive, complex and time-consuming," Buice said. "NCIS is committed to following up on any and all tangible leads and evidence."
Buice said the investigation is ongoing and "will remain open until after the findings are adjudicated." While Defense Department officials anticipate potential charges of murder, dereliction of duty and obstruction of justice, the NCIS has not yet reported its findings, and military commanders ultimately will decide what, if any, judicial procedures to initiate.
The NCIS will be looking at the days leading up to the roadside bombing that killed a member of the Kilo Company Marines and allegedly set off an emotion-laced spree of shootings in a series of homes near the explosion. The gruesome death of Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 20, of El Paso, Tex., occurred shortly before Marines allegedly shot and killed a number of civilians, including women and children.
Now, officials close to the case said, investigators are starting with the men who allegedly were in the houses when shots were fired and working their way out from there.
Sources close to the case said the military is assembling a team of experienced prosecutors for the Haditha shootings case. Defense officials said the Pentagon and the Marine Corps are taking the investigation very seriously.
"I think it's going to be a very difficult case for them to prove," said Vaughan Taylor, a former military prosecutor and instructor in criminal law at the Army's Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School. On balance, he said, he would rather be a defense counsel in the case than prosecute for the government.
"I think there's plenty of avenues for defense in this case -- the fact that it wasn't initially investigated, the fact that there's been plenty of time for witnesses to play with stories. There's a lot of wiggle room in there."
The gap between the incident and the beginning of the NCIS investigation is going to cause major problems in prosecuting any charges, a Marine officer familiar with the case agreed. "They have huge proof problems," he said, citing the lack of identified bodies.
"The long and the short of it is, until they prove the cause of death," they don't have anything, said one civilian defense lawyer representing a Kilo Company Marine. "Photographs won't be enough to do it. Good luck with that."
Marine spokesmen at the Pentagon and at Marine Corps Forces Central Command have declined to comment, citing the investigation.
A separate investigation has found several failures in the aftermath of the shootings, according to top officials familiar with the probe. These include Marines giving false statements and officers in the chain of command not providing proper oversight in the weeks and months that followed. That probe, by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell, is expected to be finished this week.
Yesterday, the military announced that Marines and soldiers stationed in Iraq will undergo core values training to reinforce how troops should act on the battlefield. The move is a sign that commanders and leaders in Washington are concerned about the ramifications of the Haditha shootings in Iraq and at home.
Aine Donovan, director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College and a former Naval Academy professor, said Marines have more ethics training than most troops and that there is no excuse for what happened.
"If you look at what happened in Haditha, you had soldiers stressed to the point of no return, and they snapped," Donovan said. "This will be remembered as the worst episode of this war. This will damage the entire profession. You're never going to restore peace by killing civilians."
President Bush said yesterday that the training "is just a reminder for troops either in Iraq or throughout our military that there are high standards expected of them, and that there are strong rules of engagement."
Bush added that "if there is wrongdoing, people will be held to account," and said the nation has "a willingness to deal with issues like this in an upfront way and an open way and correct problems."
Staff writer Steve Fainaru in San Diego contributed to this report.