General denies being influenced on Iraq case

January 9, 2008: United States Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich arrives for his arraignment at Camp Pendleton, California (Reuters).

January 9, 2008: United States Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich arrives for his arraignment at Camp Pendleton, California (Reuters).

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (AP) — A four-star general said Monday that a military lawyer who investigated the killings of 24 Iraqis in the village of Haditha never advised him on the case after becoming a top aide.

Gen. James Mattis testified for nearly two hours as the first witness at a hearing alleging undue command influence in the government's case against Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, the only remaining defendant in the biggest criminal case against U.S. troops to arise from the Iraq war.

The defense argues that Mattis was influenced by Col. John Ewers, who investigated the killings and became a top advisor to Mattis shortly after the general brought charges in December 2006. Military policy prohibits Ewers from offering legal advice on Haditha because he was also an investigator in the case.

Mattis acknowledged that Ewers sat in on meetings in 2007 to consider alleged wartime abuses by U.S. troops but said the aide recused himself from discussions on the Haditha case.

Ewers "never offered and I never asked" for advice on the case, Mattis said.

Courtroom appearance are rare for such high-ranking officers but Mattis also testified during a 2008 hearing for another defendant in the case, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani.

A military judge dismissed charges against Chessani for failing to investigate the killings after determining Mattis had been unduly influenced by Ewers. Mattis brought charges and ordered a court-martial in the Chessani case.

Mattis also brought charges against Wuterich in 2006, but his successor, Gen. Samuel Helland, ordered the court-martial, making Helland a more central figure than he was in the Chessani case.

Helland is scheduled to testify Tuesday.

Mattis said Helland sat in on meetings after becoming his deputy in 2007. But Mattis said under questioning by defense attorney Haytham Faraj that he didn't discuss Wuterich or the Haditha case with Helland or advise him.

"Not at all," Mattis said. "It never came up."

Helland's account of what he may have gleaned from the general will be crucial, said Thad Coakley, a former Marine Corps judge advocate. The defense just needs to demonstrate an appearance of undue command influence, he said.

"It depends a lot on what level it was discussed and whether Gen. Mattis expressed any opinions," Coakley said.

Eight Marines were initially charged with murder or failing to investigate the killings. Six have had charges dismissed, and one was acquitted.

Wuterich, 30, faces reduced charges of voluntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, dereliction of duty and obstruction of justice. He is currently assigned to administrative work at 1st Marine Division headquarters at Camp Pendleton.

The deaths occurred after a roadside bomb hit a Marine convoy, killing the driver of a Humvee and wounding two other Marines.

Wuterich and a squad member were accused of shooting five men by a car at the scene. Investigators say Wuterich, of Meriden, Conn., then ordered his men to clear several houses with grenades and gunfire. Women and children were left among the dead.

At his preliminary hearing, Wuterich said he regretted the loss of civilian lives but believed he was operating within military combat rules when he ordered his men to attack.

Mattis brought charges against Wuterich and the seven others in December 2006 while he was commander of the Marine Corps Forces Central Command and 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton.

He was promoted to commander of NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Transformation and U.S. Joint Forces Command in 2007, and still holds the latter position, based in Nortfolk, Va.

Mattis said he was driving across the country to his new posting in October 2007 when he transferred command to Helland by phone "somewhere around Little Rock, Ark." Helland then court-martialed Wuterich on Dec. 31, 2007.

Mattis recounted how he juggled a series of investigations into alleged wartime abuses while at the same immersing himself in the "surge" strategy to reverse the course of the Iraq war.

The general said he didn't even consider whether to court-martial Wuterich after an investigating authority recommended charges in early October 2007, a few weeks before he transferred power to Helland.

"We had significant operational matters under way," Mattis said. "There was no time."

Defense attorneys are trying to minimize the handoff of power from Mattis to Helland.

Neal Puckett, one of Wuterich's attorneys, declined to be specific about when the alleged undue command influence occurred, including which decisions the aide may have affected. He simply noted that Helland was at meetings with Mattis and the aide when the case was discussed.

"(Helland) was on staff during all those discussions, so any taint carries over," he told reporters at the end of Monday's testimony.

The pretrial hearing is scheduled to last up to a week.

The judge, Lt. Col. David Jones, said he expected to rule by the end of this week. He set a trial date for Sept. 13.