PITTSBURGH – A former U.S. Marine sued a congressman for slander on Thursday, saying he damaged his reputation by saying he and his comrades killed women and children "in cold blood" in Haditha, Iraq, in November 2005.
Former Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt filed the federal lawsuit against Rep. John Murtha in Pittsburgh. Sharratt claims the comments by the high-ranking Pennsylvania Democrat made on news shows in May 2006 also violated his constitutional rights to due process and presumption of innocence.
Sharratt, 24, was initially charged with three counts of premeditated murder but was exonerated after a full investigation and a hearing. He was honorably discharged last year.
"Sharratt, in being labeled repeatedly by Murtha as a 'cold-blooded murderer,' and by Murtha outrageously claiming that the Haditha incident was comparable to the infamous (My Lai) massacre of Vietnam, has suffered permanent, irreversible damage to his reputation," the lawsuit states.
Military prosecutors have said two dozen Iraqis, including women and children, were killed in Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005, after one Marine died and two others were wounded by a roadside bomb. Murtha, a former Marine and decorated Vietnam War veteran, spoke out about the killings, saying that troops in Iraq were being put under too much pressure.
Sharratt said he has received hate e-mails and been called a "baby killer" when he goes out in his hometown in suburban Pittsburgh.
Murtha's office said the congressman had no comment on the lawsuit.
Sharratt is the second Marine to sue Murtha over his comments about Haditha. Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, the only person still facing charges in the Haditha case, sued Murtha for defamation in 2006. That lawsuit is pending.
In his lawsuit, Sharratt accuses Murtha of repeatedly saying on CNN, NBC and other outlets that Sharratt and his fellow Marines "overreacted because of the pressure on them and killed innocent civilians in cold blood."
Murtha said the Haditha killings were comparable to the March 1968 My Lai massacre, when American servicemen killed as many as 504 Vietnamese villagers, Geary said in a statement.
Sharratt and Geary denied any civilians were killed on purpose, and Sharratt said he didn't witness any civilian deaths. Sharratt and his father, Darryl, said that he killed three insurgents, two armed with assault rifles and a third about to retrieve a rifle.
Murtha didn't name Sharratt, but media members were able to identify him from the congressman's comments and other information, said Sharratt's attorney, Noah Geary, at a news conference Thursday afternoon.
Four enlisted Marines, including Sharratt, were originally charged for their roles in the killings and four officers were charged in connection to the investigation. One officer was acquitted and charges have since been dropped against everyone else except Wuterich, whose case is pending.
Wuterich has pleaded not guilty to charges of voluntary manslaughter. He is accused of ordering his men to clear several houses with grenades and gunfire, leading to the deaths of women and children.
A veteran congressman, Murtha was hawkish on war issues for decades but has come to believe the U.S. should leave Iraq as soon as possible. He is known for bringing money and jobs, especially in the defense industries, to his district in rural Pennsylvania.
He faces Republican William T. Russell, a career Army member who left the service two years short of retirement, in the November election. Russell has run campaign ads criticizing Murtha for his comments about Haditha.