By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 2, 2006
A Marine Corps staff sergeant who led the squad accused of killing two dozen civilians in Haditha, Iraq, will file a lawsuit today in federal court in Washington claiming that Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) defamed him when the congressman made public comments about the incident earlier this year.
Attorneys for Frank D. Wuterich, 26, argue in court papers that Murtha tarnished the Marine's reputation by telling news organizations in May that the Marine unit cracked after a roadside bomb killed one of its members and that the troops "killed innocent civilians in cold blood." Murtha also said repeatedly that the incident was covered up.
Murtha argued that the questionable deaths of 24 civilians were indicative of the difficulties and overpowering stress that U.S. troops are facing. The congressman, a former Marine, has been a leading advocate for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq.
In the court filing, obtained by The Washington Post, the lawyers say that Murtha made the comments after being briefed by Defense Department officials who "deliberately provided him with inaccurate and false information." Neal A. Puckett and Mark S. Zaid, suing for libel and invasion of privacy, also wrote that Murtha made the comments outside of his official scope as a congressman.
Telephone calls yesterday to Murtha's office in Washington were referred to his district office in Pennsylvania, and calls there were not returned. A Marine Corps spokesman declined to comment yesterday on the Haditha investigation or the lawsuit.
The suit could have interesting legal ramifications because Wuterich and the other members of his squad have not been charged and have not received any official investigative documentation about the Nov. 19 incident. A Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation is expected to determine possible charges this summer, said officials familiar with the case.
Zaid said the filing is designed partly to force Murtha to disclose what information he received from the Defense Department and the Marine Corps commandant to form his opinion, essentially trying to speed up the discovery process in a potential criminal trial.
"This case is not about money; it's about clearing Frank Wuterich's name, and part of that is to identify where these leaks are coming from," Zaid said in an interview. "Congressman Murtha has created this atmosphere that has already concluded guilt. He's created this environment that really smells, and he's the only one who has done that."
The move by Wuterich is rare, as statements made by members of Congress generally are protected under the "speech or debate" clause in Article I, Section 6, of the Constitution. But legal experts said the clause grants immunity only for what lawmakers say in legislative proceedings and does not apply to news releases, speeches and other public comments.
Rodney A. Smolla, dean of the University of Richmond Law School and a libel expert, said yesterday that Wuterich would have the burden of proving that he is innocent and that Murtha's statements were false, but he added that the quotations appear to be actionable in court. He said the suit shows that Wuterich probably thinks he did nothing wrong.
"Part of the subtext of this is it's a showing of confidence and a preemptive strike of sorts," Smolla said. "The congressman's statement does not sound as if it is merely hyperbole or opinion or name-calling. Instead, it conveys the idea that the Marines violated professional standards and perhaps the law."
Wuterich, through his attorneys, has maintained his innocence and has said that the Marines killed two dozen people that day because they were engaged in a firefight with suspected insurgents. He told his lawyers that he and other Marines used grenades and rifles to clear two houses they thought were hostile. Another Marine's detailed account of the incident, obtained by The Post, corroborates Wuterich's version.
Donald Ritchie, associate historian in the Senate Historical Office, said that such defamation suits happen from time to time but that they tend not to go anywhere because of the constitutional protections members have. He said the most famous case was in 1979, when the Supreme Court ruled that Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) was not protected when he made defamatory statements to constituents in a newsletter.
"The Supreme Court has suggested that speech and debate has limits to it, and that makes people vulnerable in certain areas," Ritchie said.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.