SAN DIEGO – A Marine at the center of the biggest prosecution of U.S. troops in the Iraq war after being accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians should be tried for the lesser offense of negligent homicide, instead of murder, an investigating officer recommended.
Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 27, was charged with the unpremeditated murder of 17 Iraqis in Haditha in 2005. The former squad leader allegedly directed his Marines in an assault that left 24 men, women and children dead in a case that further fueled resentment in the Muslim world against U.S. forces in Iraq.
Lt. Col. Paul Ware, after reviewing evidence against Wuterich during an Article 32 preliminary hearing at Camp Pendleton, recommended the Marine be tried on the lesser charge in the deaths of five children and two women, Wuterich's attorney, Neal Puckett, said Thursday.
His recommendation is nonbinding and the final decision about whether Wuterich should stand trial rests with Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the commanding general overseeing the case. Mattis has already dismissed charges against at least three of the eight Marines accused in the November 2005 incident.
If Mattis accepts the recommendation for Wuterich and a similar one for one of his corporals no one will face murder charges in the biggest criminal case involving civilian deaths in Iraq. It would also mean that Wuterich would not face disciplinary action in connection with the 10 other people he allegedly killed.
"We're both very pleased and also not surprised, given how the other cases have gone," Puckett said. "There has never been any inkling that any of these Marines lost control or went on a rampage."
The killings occurred Nov. 19, 2005, after a roadside bomb hit a Marine convoy, killing the driver of a Humvee and wounding two other Marines. Wuterich and Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz allegedly shot five men by a car at the scene, then Wuterich ordered his men into several houses, where they cleared rooms with grenades and gunfire killing unarmed civilians in the process
Of four enlisted Marines initially accused in the case, charges have been dropped or dismissed against Dela Cruz and Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt. Ware has also recommended charges be dismissed against the third alleged shooter, Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum.
Charges also have been dropped against two of four officers accused of dereliction of duty for failing to investigate the incident. Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the highest-ranking of the officers, has been recommended for a court-martial, but Mattis has made no final decision. Another officer, 1st Lt. Andrew A. Grayson, is scheduled for a pretrial hearing.
In Wuterich's case, Ware also recommended dropping charges of making a false official statement and telling a squadmate to do the same, Puckett said. The negligent homicide charge carries a maximum sentence of three years per count versus the possible life sentence for murder.
The recommendation was made this week and first reported in the North County Times. A Marine Corps spokesman, Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, declined to comment.
At his preliminary hearing, Wuterich said he regretted the loss of civilian life in Haditha, but said he believed he was coming under fire from the homes and so was operating within military combat rules when he ordered his men to assault the buildings.
"Based on the information I had at the time, based on the situation, I made the best decisions I could have at that time," Wuterich said at the hearing. "Engaging was the only choice."
Wuterich also said he will "always mourn the unfortunate deaths of the innocent Iraqis who were killed during our response to that attack."
Dela Cruz, one of Wuterich's former squad mates, testified against him at the hearing, saying that Wuterich had shot the men by the car even though their hands were in the air and they were not running. Dela Cruz's charges had been dropped and he had been given immunity to testify.
Wuterich argued the men were fleeing the scene of the bomb, an activity suspicious enough at the time to legitimize killing them.
Though prosecutors have yet to score any convictions, three high-ranking Marines have been censured for failing to investigate the killings. Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck, former commanding general of the 2nd Marine Division, his chief of staff Col. Robert G. Sokoloski, and Col. Stephen W. Davis received letters of censure for not probing the deaths.
A letter of censure is the military's most severe administrative punishment.