Image: Frank Wuterich
Denis Poroy  /  AP file
Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich said he regretted the loss of civilian life in Haditha, but that he believed he was coming under fire.
updated 10/4/2007 4:47:32 PM ET 2007-10-04T20:47:32

An investigating officer has recommended that the Marine at the center of the biggest prosecution of U.S. troops in the Iraq war should not stand trial on murder charges, a defense attorney said Thursday.

Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 27, of Meriden, Conn., is charged with the unpremeditated murder of 17 Iraqis in Haditha in 2005. The former squad leader allegedly directed his Marines in an assault that left 24 men, women and children dead.

Lt. Col. Paul Ware recommended that Wuterich should be tried for the lesser offense of negligent homicide in the deaths of five children and two women, said Neal Puckett, Wuterich’s attorney.

Ware reviewed evidence against Wuterich in a preliminary hearing known as an Article 32. His recommendation is nonbinding and the final decision about whether Wuterich should stand trial rests with Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the commanding general overseeing the case.

If Mattis accepts the recommendation for Wuterich and a similar one for one of his corporals, which appears likely based on past practice, no one will face murder charges in the biggest case involving civilian deaths in Iraq.

“We’re both very pleased and also not surprised, given how the other cases have gone,” Puckett said. “There has never been any inkling that any of these Marines lost control or went on a rampage.”

Charges dropped for other Marines
Of four enlisted Marines initially accused in the case, charges have been dropped against Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz and Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt. Ware has also recommended charges be dismissed against the third alleged shooter, Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum. Charges also have been dropped against two of four officers accused of failing to investigate the incident.

The killings occurred Nov. 19, 2005, after a roadside bomb hit a Marine convoy, killing the driver of a Humvee and wounding two other Marines. Wuterich and Dela Cruz allegedly shot five men by a car at the scene, then Wuterich ordered his men into several houses, where they cleared rooms with grenades and gunfire killing unarmed civilians in the process.

At his preliminary hearing, Wuterich said he regretted the loss of civilian life in Haditha, but said he believed he was coming under fire from the homes and so was operating within military combat rules when he ordered his men to assault the buildings.

“Based on the information I had at the time, based on the situation, I made the best decisions I could have at that time,” Wuterich said at the hearing. “Engaging was the only choice.”

Wuterich also said he will “always mourn the unfortunate deaths of the innocent Iraqis who were killed during our response to that attack.”

Marine killed men with hands in air?
Dela Cruz, one of Wuterich’s former squad mates, testified against him at the hearing, saying that Wuterich shot the men by the car even though their hands were in the air and they were not running. Dela Cruz’s charges had been dropped and he had been given immunity to testify.

Wuterich argued the men were fleeing the scene of the bomb, an activity suspicious enough at the time to legitimize killing them.

Though prosecutors have yet to score any convictions, three high-ranking Marines have been censured for failing to investigate the killings. A letter of censure is the military’s most severe administrative punishment.

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