By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 4, 2008
After a two-year investigation into the killings of up to 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq, the Marine Corps has decided that none of the Marines involved in the incident will be charged with murder. Instead, two enlisted Marines and two Marine officers will face trial in coming months for the killings and for failing to investigate them.
The most serious charges have been leveled against Marine Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, who is scheduled to be arraigned on charges of voluntary manslaughter in California next week, the last step before the case officially moves to trial.
Initially called a massacre by Iraqi residents of Haditha and later characterized as coldblooded murder by a U.S. congressman, the case has turned not on an alleged rampage but on a far more complex analysis of how U.S. troops fight an insurgency in the midst of a population they seek to protect.
The Marine Corps at first charged eight Marines and officers with murder or failing to investigate an apparent war crime. The charges have since been narrowed to four men in the unit, after three were cleared and a fourth was granted immunity to testify.
Wuterich is charged with nine counts of voluntary manslaughter, with the charges alleging that he had an intent to kill and that his actions inside a residential home and on a residential street in November 2005 amounted to unlawful killing "in the heat of sudden passion caused by adequate provocation." Charging documents released this week say he killed at least nine people without properly obtaining positive identification that they were the enemy in the midst of an attack. 1st Lt. Andrew Grayson has been charged with obstructing the investigation.
Wuterich and Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum are the only two shooters that day to face criminal scrutiny; Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, the battalion commander, faces charges that he was derelict in his duty for failing to ask for an investigation.
The charges arise from the Nov. 19, 2005, shootings of as many as 24 innocent civilians who were nearby when a roadside bomb killed a member of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. Wuterich and others in his unit killed a group of men who were in a white car near the blast and then stormed into two nearby houses, killing unarmed men, women and children after the Marines believed they were taking fire from the homes.
Public attention to the Haditha case increased in the spring of 2006 when Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) said after briefings from military officials that the Marines had killed civilians "in cold blood." The killings are among the most infamous of the Iraq war; 69 U.S. troops have been charged in connection with killing Iraqi civilians, and 22 of them have been convicted of murder, negligent homicide or voluntary manslaughter.
Military law experts said the manslaughter charges reflect the military's reluctance to pursue murder charges because they are hard to win in court -- especially as military juries tend to give combat troops the benefit of the doubt. Investigating officers in the cases have recommended lesser charges because they have found that the Marines determined the houses were hostile and believed they could kill everyone inside, more likely a case of recklessness than intent to commit a crime.
"I think it's still going to be hard to get convictions in these types of cases when you're in a battlefield environment," said David P. Sheldon, a military law expert in Washington.
Mark Zaid, one of Wuterich's defense attorneys, said the charges show there was no "massacre" and that the case highlights how difficult it is for U.S. troops to make tough battlefield decisions. He said Wuterich and the other Marines were following their rules of engagement when they shot and killed their targets in Haditha, with unfortunate -- but not illegal -- consequences.
"Every Marine, period, is trained with the intent to kill," Zaid said. "What everyone will realize at the end of the day is that the characterization of the events was nothing like reality, that the training the troops on the ground received was primarily responsible for what happened, and that the fog of war sometimes ends up with terrible results."
Brian Rooney, an attorney for Chessani, said yesterday that Chessani's trial, scheduled for April, is merely a way for the Marines to show they prosecuted an officer even after they administratively punished at least three senior officers who never ordered an investigation. Military probes blamed Chessani and several others for failing to take civilian deaths seriously.
"It's clear now that no massacre occurred, yet this legal fiction is moving forward," Rooney said.
Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said that while the charges against the Marines are still "very serious," they are not "the bang that people expected at the front end." Each charge of voluntary manslaughter carries a potential maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.