Image: Stephen Tatum
Denis Poroy  /  AP
Marine Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum arrives for his Article 32 hearing at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in San Diego County on Monday.
updated 7/16/2007 7:45:13 PM ET 2007-07-16T23:45:13

A Marine charged with murdering two Iraqi girls and killing other civilians in the town of Haditha believed he was following procedure by confronting a threat with deadly force, his attorney said Monday.

Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum has acknowledged killing several Iraqis in two houses on Nov. 19, 2005, but he says he was responding to a legitimate threat. His squad killed 24 civilians in Haditha that day after a roadside bomb killed a Marine nearby.

“He was taught that deadly force is the proper response to a threat,” attorney Jack Zimmerman said of Tatum at the military equivalent of a grand jury hearing.

Tatum also is charged with the negligent homicide of two men, a woman and a child, and with assaulting another boy and girl who were injured in a grenade explosion. The Marine, wearing his desert camouflage uniform in military court, spoke only to confirm his identity.

If convicted of murder, he faces life in prison.

'I stand fast'
After the Article 32 investigation, hearing officer Lt. Col. Paul Ware will assess the evidence against Tatum and make a recommendation about whether he should face a court-martial. The final decision rests with Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the general overseeing the deadliest criminal case to emerge from the war.

“Knowing what I know now, I feel badly about killing Iraqi civilians who may have been innocent,” Tatum told Navy investigators in March 2006. “But I stand fast in my decisions that day, as I reacted to the threats that I perceived at that time.”

Prosecutor Lt. Col. Paul Atterbury gave the military court copies of rules-of-engagement cards that he said were supposed to have been distributed to Tatum’s unit at the time of the killing. The cards state that Marines need to positively identify targets as having a hostile intent before using deadly force, Atterbury said.

There is no way the government can prove Tatum was in possession of the card at the time, Zimmerman said.

Tatum, a native of Edmond, Okla., is the second of three enlisted Marines in the case to face a hearing to assess whether his charges should be referred to a court-martial.

Last week, an investigating officer determined the government’s evidence against Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt was insufficient for a court-martial and recommended that Mattis drop the charges.

Tatum’s Marine squad went house to house in Haditha looking for insurgents after the roadside bomb exploded.

Mistaken sounds
According to investigative documents, Tatum and several other Marines went into one house, where he said he and Cpl. Hector Salinas threw grenades into a room after hearing what they thought was the sound of an AK-47 being readied to fire. The squad leader, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich and Lance Cpl. Humberto Manuel Mendoza then fired into the room.

Tatum said he joined in the firing and shot at least four people at a distance of about 20 feet. He said he did not positively identify those he shot as insurgents because he considered the entire house to be hostile.

Mendoza has been given immunity from prosecution and may testify at Tatum’s hearing.

The preliminary hearing for Wuterich, who is charged with murdering 18 Iraqis, is set for Aug. 22.

Soldier: No intent to harm innocent Iraqis
In another house, Tatum said, he may have shot as many as five people. He determined the house was hostile because Wuterich began firing.

Aside from the three enlisted Marines charged with murder, four officers are charged with dereliction of duty for failing to investigate the deaths. A hearing officer for Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the highest-ranking Marine charged, has recommended he face a court-martial on charges of dereliction of duty and violating a lawful order for failing to investigate the deaths.

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