By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 10, 2007
A Marine Corps general dismissed all charges against a Marine lance corporal accused of murder for his role in the Nov. 2005 attacks that left as many as two dozen civilians dead in Haditha, Iraq, according to an announcement yesterday that praised the Marine's service in fighting "a shadowy enemy who hides among the innocent people."
The finding by Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, exonerates Justin L. Sharratt, 22, of Canonsburg, Pa. In a two-page document, Mattis not only cleared Sharratt of legal charges but also called him "innocent" in the general's eyes. The dismissal came after an investigating officer found that Sharratt acted appropriately when he shot a group of armed men while searching a house in Haditha hours after other members of his unit killed numerous women and children in an alleged killing spree through two other houses.
"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 in a letter to Sharratt this week. "With the dismissal of these charges, you may fairly conclude that you did your best to live up to the standards, followed by U.S. fighting men throughout our many wars, in the face of life or death decisions made by you in a matter of seconds in combat."
Also yesterday, the Marine Corps announced that Mattis had dismissed all charges against Capt. Randy W. Stone, a military lawyer accused of not properly investigating the slayings. Mattis ruled that Stone's "mistakes" in not pushing harder for an investigation did not amount to a crime. Three other officers remain charged with failing to properly investigate the civilian deaths.
It is unclear how the decisions will affect the cases of two other enlisted Marines who are charged with murder for their actions in Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005, because Sharratt was not involved in the deaths of nearly 20 people who were killed in a matter of minutes after an early-morning roadside bomb claimed the life of a fellow Marine in Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. After the explosion, the Marines killed five men who were in a nearby car and then stormed into two houses, killing nearly everyone inside.
Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich and Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum still face murder charges in the slayings. Wuterich is charged with shooting the unarmed men who were in the nearby car, and both are charged with killing people inside the houses that lined the street where the massive bomb went off.
The Haditha case has spurred the military chain of command in Iraq to reevaluate the way U.S. troops interact with local populations, which are viewed as key to stabilizing the country. The case has drawn allegations of a vengeful massacre while the Marines have claimed they were under heavy attack and responded with deadly, but appropriate, force.
In deciding that Sharratt should not face trial, Mattis found that the Marine was operating in a complex combat environment that called for split-second decisions, echoing a prior investigative finding that Sharratt was following his rules of engagement when he shot a group of men threatening him with AK-47 assault rifles.
Sharratt's father said yesterday that his son is relieved "that he can go on with his life" and is leaving the Marine Corps this month.
"It was a trying time for our family, but we will mend our lives, and we will get through this," Darryl Sharratt said. "I feel it was a travesty of justice bringing these charges against my son. It is not the massacre that people have said it was."
Stone's charges, which alleged that he should have done more to investigate the deaths, were part of an intensive probe into the aftermath of the shootings. Investigators found that Marine Corps officers refused to believe the deaths could have been criminal.
"Captain Stone and his fellow Marines served in the most ethically challenging combat environment in the world," Mattis said in a statement released yesterday. "Nonetheless, Marines are expected to withstand the extreme and fatiguing pressures inherent in counterinsurgency operations, protecting the innocent, while tirelessly fighting the enemy with relentless vigor. I have no doubt that he now understands the absolute necessity for objective inquiry into the combat actions of our Marines in such an environment, especially when innocent lives are lost."
Charles Gittins, a civilian lawyer who represents Stone, said it was a surprise that his client, who had little battlefield experience and was new to the battalion at the time of the incident, was charged at all. "It was a case that couldn't be made," Gittins said.
Stone, 35, of Dunkirk, Md., works at Marine Corps Base Quantico.
Gary Myers and James Culp, civilian defense attorneys who represent Sharratt, said yesterday that they are pleased by the findings. "We believe this decision has an impact upon every Marine, not just our client," Myers said. "This decision recognizes the complex and intensely difficult circumstances that exist in ground combat in an insurgency."