CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (AP) — It has been more than four years since Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich's squad of Marines was accused of killing 24 Iraqis, some unarmed women and children. It has been more than two years since he was court-martialed.
As the November 2005 killings have faded in many minds, the only remaining and highest-profile defendant in the biggest criminal case against U.S. troops to arise from the Iraq war faces a key test Friday.
A military judge is scheduled to rule whether to dismiss charges against the former squad leader. Wuterich's attorneys argue that unlawful command influence occurred while a general was considering a court-martial and should prevent the case from going to trial Sept. 13.
If the judge agrees, it would mark a stinging finale for the military in a string of defeats in its prosecution of alleged war crimes in Iraq.
Eight Marines were charged in December 2006 with murder or failure to investigate the killings. Six have had charges dropped or dismissed, and one was acquitted.
The end of the case would likely be met by outcry in Iraq, where many see a lack of accountability for the actions of U.S. troops through the seven years of war.
Iman Walid Abdul-Hamid, 14, from Haditha said he lost seven family members in the attack, including his parents, grandparents, two uncles and a brother.
"We were sleeping. My father was reciting Quran in another room, when the soldiers broke the door and shot him dead," he said. "These killers should be killed. Their case should not be closed before they are justly tried. It is not right to throw away this case."
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 Marine was killed by a roadside bomb in the town of Haditha.
Wuterich and a squad member were accused of shooting five men by a car at the scene. Investigators say Wuterich then ordered his men to clear several houses with grenades and gunfire.
A full investigation didn't begin until a Time magazine reporter inquired about the deaths in January 2006, two months later.
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.
At issue in Friday's anticipated ruling by Lt. Col. David Jones is whether commanders acted improperly or can be perceived to have acted improperly before Wuterich was court-martialed in December 2007. Defense lawyers allege the commanders were improperly influenced by an aide who had investigated the case.
The judge said Wuterich's attorneys presented credible evidence regarding the role of military lawyer, Col. John Ewers, who investigated the Haditha killings and later became a top aide to the generals who brought charges against Wuterich and ordered him to stand trial.
Gen. James Mattis, who brought charges, acknowledged during testimony that Ewers was in the room when allegations of wartime abuse were discussed but denies ever getting advice from him on the Haditha case.
The defense argues that Ewers' mere presence stifled junior attorneys who were assigned to advise the general. Court papers describe how Ewers, who was seriously wounded in Iraq in 2003, had a stellar reputation and a long history with Gen. Mattis.
That same argument worked for another defendant.
In 2008, a judge dismissed a case against Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, who was charged with dereliction of duty for failing to investigate the Haditha deaths.
Haditha is one of several Iraq war cases the government has pursued at Camp Pendleton.
One case was filed in the kidnapping and death of an Iraqi man in Hamdania in April 2006. One Marine was convicted of murder and sent to prison. A Navy corpsman pleaded guilty to kidnapping, and three other Marines pleaded guilty to aggravated assault.
Another case involved the death of an unarmed Iraqi detainee in Fallujah in November 2004. One Marine was spared prison time after pleading guilty to dereliction of duty, and another was acquitted. Their former squad leader was acquitted in a federal court.
"These trials have no impact on the U.S. soldiers' conduct," said Dr. Abdul-Rahman Najim al-Mashhadani, who heads a Baghdad-based human rights organization called Hammourabi involved in the Haditha case. "This trial will be no different from those that preceded it. The case will be thrown out for a ready-made pretext such as the Marines were exposed to danger or shootings. Even if they sentence him, his sentence will not match the horrific crime he has committed."
Associated Press Writer Bushra Juhi in Baghdad contributed to this report.