4 Marines Charged In Haditha Killings
Friday, December 22, 2006
Four U.S. Marines were charged with multiple counts of murder yesterday for their alleged roles in the deaths of two dozen civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha last year. The accusations set up what could be the highest-profile atrocity prosecution to arise from the Iraq war.
In an unusual move, the Marine Corps also charged four officers with crimes related to their alleged failure to investigate and report the Nov. 19, 2005, slayings, which occurred when the Marines conducted a house-to-house sweep and attacked a vehicle after a member of their unit was killed in an ambush.
The separate investigation into how the incident was reported led to dereliction charges against a lieutenant colonel, two captains and a first lieutenant. They are accused of failing to thoroughly investigate and accurately report the slayings to superiors. The lieutenant also faces charges of making a false official statement and obstructing justice, according to the Marine Corps.
None of the murder charges carries a possible death sentence, because the Marines are not accused of premeditated murder. But the charging documents indicate that they did not properly identify their targets, did intend to kill the people in the houses and should have known that their actions could lead to the deaths of innocent civilians.
The 24 civilians were killed in a neighborhood near the spot where a roadside bomb killed a Marine who was driving in a convoy of Humvees. Early media reports suggested that the Marines went on a rampage after Lance Cpl. Miguel "T.J." Terrazas was killed, but they have claimed through their defense lawyers that they were following their rules of engagement when they responded to the attack.
It took the Marine Corps 13 months to charge the men in part because initial reports about the case delivered up the chain of command were incomplete; a public affairs statement about the incident was incorrect; and investigators were not brought in until months later, after a Time magazine reporter asked about the case. Naval Criminal Investigative Service officials have been investigating since March.
Attention to the case increased earlier this year when Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) alleged after briefings from military officials that the Marines had killed civilians "in cold blood."
In a news conference yesterday afternoon at Camp Pendleton, a Marine base north of San Diego, Col. Stewart Navarre declined to comment on details of the cases.
Each of the Marines was charged in multiple slayings, but Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, 26, a squad leader with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, was implicated in 18 deaths. Wuterich faces 13 counts of unpremeditated murder.
Kathleen A. Duignan, executive director of the Washington-based National Institute of Military Justice, said: "I think they know they can't prove premeditated murder, because you need to prove intent." She said prosecutors probably will argue that the Marines did not take due and deliberate care and did not follow rules of engagement.
Defense attorneys are likely to argue that the Marines were following the rules while taking fire and simply made mistakes. Duignan said the case falls into a gray area, where lawful combat could blur into unlawful action.
"It's a very fine line," Duignan said. "It will be a very difficult yet very interesting case."
The charge sheets allege that the Marines failed to properly identify their targets and that Wuterich told his unit to "shoot first and ask questions later."
Iraqis in Haditha have described the incident as a massacre, saying Marines went from house to house indiscriminately shooting at men, women and children. One witness told The Washington Post in May that victims pleaded for their lives and said they were not insurgents, moments before they were shot.
Wuterich has long claimed, through his lawyers, that he was responding to a coordinated attack on his unit and did nothing wrong that day. He and other Marines have told their lawyers that they received small-arms fire from the houses they attacked. They used standard house-clearing techniques to ensure that the threat against them was eliminated from two houses, they have said. The slayings of the civilians -- including women and children -- were an unfortunate result of the Marines' attack, they have argued.
Neal Puckett, one of Wuterich's civilian attorneys, said in an interview yesterday that the allegations do not contradict Wuterich's version of events. Puckett said there is no evidence that the Marines lost control or went on some sort of a rampage.
"It's what happens in wartime. You intend to kill the people you're shooting at," Puckett said. "It would imply that they have no proof of a sweep conducted to punish Iraqis."
Wuterich was later recommended for an award for heroism that said his efforts prevented further injury or death to Marines and civilians.
Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt, 22, is charged with three counts of unpremeditated murder, apparently for the deaths of three men he allegedly shot in a third house the Marines entered later on Nov. 19.
Sharratt has maintained his innocence to his family. His parents, Theresa and Daryl Sharratt, were at Camp Pendleton when the charges were announced. In an e-mailed statement, Theresa Sharratt said she believes the Marine Corps has let her son down.
"Justin has given everything to his country and has done nothing to disgrace it," she wrote. "To the Marine Corps I simply say, 'shame on you for abandoning my son who has gallantly served through horrible times.' "
Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz, 24, faces five charges of unpremeditated murder for allegedly killing a group of men who approached the Marine convoy in a white car that morning after the bomb blast. Marines who were on the scene have alleged that Dela Cruz emptied his rifle's clip into the victims' bodies. The Marine Corps alleges that he also lied to investigators after the incident.
Also charged with two counts of unpremeditated murder is Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum, 25, who joined Wuterich as he cleared the Haditha houses. Tatum also faces four counts of negligent homicide -- which carry a maximum punishment of three years in prison -- and one charge of assault.
Charges in such a case are the first step in the military's legal process and will be followed by an Article 32 hearing, which is roughly equivalent to a civilian grand jury investigation. After that hearing, an investigating officer will recommend how to proceed, and commanders will decide whether the cases should go to courts-martial.
The four Marines charged in the slayings face possible sentences of life in prison. The four officers face much lighter sentences.
They are charged with dereliction for failing to report the incident to superiors and failing to initiate an investigation. None of the officers was at the scene when the slayings occurred. A young lieutenant platoon leader who arrived shortly after the shootings is not accused in the case.
Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, 42, the Marines' battalion commander, was charged with one count of violating an order, which carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison, and two counts of dereliction, each of which carries a six-month sentence. Capt. Randy W. Stone, 34, the battalion's staff judge advocate, faces similar accusations. Capt. Lucas M. McConnell, 31, the Marines' company commander, is charged with two counts of dereliction. Lt. Andrew A. Grayson, 25, an intelligence officer, faces two dereliction counts, one count of making a false official statement and one count of obstructing justice.
In a statement to investigators, Chessani said he believed that the Marines' actions followed a complex attack meant to draw them into firing on civilian houses. He said he reported to superiors that civilians had been killed.
"I thought it was very sad, very unfortunate, but at the time I did not suspect any wrongdoing from my Marines," Chessani told investigators, according to a transcript. "I saw it as a combat action."
The four officers are the largest number charged in any one civilian homicide case from the Iraq war and bring to 10 the total number of officers charged in connection with homicide cases.
Sixty-four U.S. service members have been charged in connection with the deaths of Iraqi civilians since the war began in March 2003. Eighteen have been sentenced to prison time, including a 90-year term for an Army soldier who admitted his role in raping an Iraqi teenager in Mahmudiyah and killing her and her family.
Geis reported from Camp Pendleton, Calif. Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.