CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – A military jury acquitted a Marine intelligence officer Wednesday of charges that he tried to help cover up the killings of 24 Iraqis.
Cheers erupted as the seven-officer panel cleared 1st Lt. Andrew Grayson, who was the first of three Marines to be tried in the biggest U.S. criminal case involving Iraqi deaths linked to the war. The verdict came just five hours after deliberations began.
The judge, Maj. Brian E. Kasprzyk, admonished the noisy courtroom, saying: "There will be no more of that."
Grayson, who has always maintained he did nothing wrong, was not at the scene of the killings of men, women and children on Nov. 19, 2005, in Haditha. He was accused of telling a sergeant to delete photographs of the dead from a digital camera and laptop computer.
Outside the courtroom, a visibly emotional Grayson said the verdict was an end to a terrible ordeal.
"It's finally time for me to get to be with my family," he said, fighting back tears.
His wife, Susan, cried as she said what she had only dared to think about for months: "It's over."
Grayson, of Springboro, Ohio, was acquitted of two counts of making false official statements, two counts of trying to fraudulently separate from service and one count of attempt to deceive by making false statements. He would have faced as many as 20 years in prison if convicted of all counts.
Grayson said he refused a deal early in the case that would have reduced charges and kept him out of jail.
"I was the one that had to look at myself in the mirror," he said. "To take the easy way out, you are the one that has to live with that."
He said the charges that he helped cover up by ordering the photos to be deleted appears to be the result of a misunderstanding. He has always maintained he was following Marine Corps policy that prohibits photos of Iraqi bodies on personal computers.
Grayson's attorney, Joseph Casas, said he believed the verdict could influence pending prosecutions.
"I think it sets the tone for the overall whirlwind Haditha has been. It's been a botched investigation from the get-go," he said. "I believe in the end all of the so-called Haditha Marines who still have to face trial will be exonerated."
Prosecutors did not make themselves available for comment.
During closing arguments earlier in the day, Casas and a prosecutor offered starkly contrasting views of Grayson.
The prosecutor, Lt. Col. Paul H. Atterbury, portrayed Grayson as a liar who wanted to avoid accountability and ordered the sergeant to delete photographs of the bodies.
Atterbury told jurors evidence showed Grayson lied five times to investigators and hindered their efforts to look into the killings.
"Gentlemen, why would an otherwise promising officer make a statement like that? The government's argument is that it was to avoid accountability," Atterbury said.
But Casas told jurors the prosecution of Grayson was the result of a flubbed investigation conducted under heavy media scrutiny. The case, he said, was falling apart, pointing to a move a day earlier by a judge who dismissed an obstruction-of-justice charge against Grayson.
"One of the greatest charges we started out with is no longer there," Casas said. "It's like the government ran a 90-yard punt return and got called back to line 10."
The killings occurred after a roadside bomb killed a Marine and wounded two others.
Investigators allege that after the bombing, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich and a squad member shot five men by a car at the scene. Wuterich then allegedly ordered his men into several houses, where they cleared rooms with grenades and gunfire, killing more Iraqis, including women and children, in the process.
Four enlisted Marines initially were charged with murder and four officers were charged with failing to investigate the deaths. Charges were dropped against five of the Marines.
Still to face court-martial are Wuterich, of Meriden, Conn., whose charges include voluntary manslaughter, and Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, of Rangely, Colo., who has been charged with dereliction of duty and violation of a lawful order on allegations he mishandled the aftermath of the killings.
Grayson and Wuterich pleaded not guilty. Chessani has said he didn't order a formal investigation because he believed the deaths resulted from lawful combat. He has not entered a plea because in the military system that is not usually done until motions hearings are completed and a court-martial is about to start.