By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 1, 2007
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif., Aug. 31 -- A Marine testifying under immunity Friday said he saw Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich shoot five unarmed Iraqi men moments after a roadside bomb exploded in Haditha in November 2005, a week after Wuterich said that if such an attack occurred, "we should kill everybody in that vicinity."
The damaging new testimony by Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz was diluted by withering defense attacks on his credibility. At one point in a contentious four-hour review of his earlier, often contradictory accounts, the quest for truth grew so convoluted, the witness implored to be disbelieved: "I did lie about that, sir," Dela Cruz said.
The muddled exchanges underscored the difficulties the prosecution has faced in the Haditha case, which broke as accusations of massacre -- Marines acknowledge killing 24 Iraqi civilians -- but in military court has produced nothing approaching certainty.
Four Marines were charged with murder in the case. Charges against two have been dismissed, and an investigating officer, in the role of judge, has recommended dismissal for a third, citing questions about witness credibility.
Wuterich's case is the last to receive an Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a grand jury hearing. The squad leader faces 13 counts of unpremeditated murder, as well as charges of urging other Marines to lie about what happened on Nov. 19, 2005, after a roadside bomb killed a fellow Marine and thrust the unit into its first enemy contact.
Dela Cruz testified against Wuterich and another Marine after his own charges were dismissed in exchange for immunity from prosecution. He insisted that after giving at least two false statements to investigators -- and contesting portions of others -- he was finally telling the truth.
He said Wuterich shot five Iraqi men who appeared to be unarmed bystanders at the scene just seconds after the roadside bomb exploded. He added that the squad leader later told him to falsely assert that the men were running away, behavior that would have justified firing on them under the Marines' operative rules of engagement.
Dela Cruz also recounted a conversation that he said occurred a week before the shootings, after word arrived that a comrade had been wounded in a similar bombing. "For whatever reason, Staff Sgt. Wuterich said, 'If we ever get hit again, we should kill everybody in that vicinity . . . so to teach them a lesson,' sir," the witness said.
The damaging content of Dela Cruz's testimony was tempered by his demeanor: He appeared wooden on the stand and often took long moments to produce answers to apparently simple questions.
At other times, he appeared contentious. Dela Cruz readily admitted to urinating onto the broken head of one Iraqi man lying dead in the road. But he disputed another Marine's allegation that while removing bodies from one of the nearby houses where more than a dozen Iraqis were killed, he kicked a dead man's head and said, "I killed that [expletive]."
"If I had the guts to tell I urinated and confessed about it, why would I deny this?" Dela Cruz said. "Pissing is worse than kicking."
"Oh, is it?" Lt. Col. Colby Vokey, a defense attorney, asked loudly.
The witness drew back. "They're both worse, sir."
Dela Cruz also admitted to abusing prisoners in Iraq, saying he kicked detainees in a way that was unlikely to leave bruises. And at Haditha, he said, he fired perhaps eight rounds into the men he said Wuterich killed. In reasoning that clearly puzzled the investigating officer, Dela Cruz said he joined Wuterich in a cover story out of fear that those shots would get him jailed.
"Was it your understanding that if you shot a dead body you could be charged with murder?" asked Lt. Col. Paul Ware, who will recommend whether Wuterich should face court-martial.
"Yes, sir," Dela Cruz said.
"Why?" Ware asked, then quickly shook his head. "Never mind."
Wuterich's attorney suggested that Dela Cruz was concerned because he had in fact fired on the men as they stood beside the road, several with their hands in the air. "Shooting dead bodies is not murder," Vokey said. "Or maybe you were the first to shoot at them?"
"No, sir," Dela Cruz said.
The hearing will resume Wednesday.