Image: Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich
Mike Nelson  /  EPA file
US Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich.
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updated 9/13/2010 8:42:04 PM ET 2010-09-14T00:42:04

A major Iraqi war crimes case that has dragged on for five years hit another snag Monday when a military judge excused one of the attorneys for a Marine sergeant whose squad was charged with killing 24 Iraqis.

The move by military judge Lt. Col. David M. Jones came only weeks before the trial is set to begin on Nov. 2.

Jones granted the request by the civilian attorney, retired Marine Lt. Col. Colby Vokey, who asked to be withdrawn because of an undisclosed ethical conflict.

Vokey was one of three civilian lawyers and a military attorney representing Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, the last defendant in one of the biggest cases to emerge from the Iraq war.

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The judge made his decision after meeting privately with the defense team, saying they showed good cause for Vokey's release and it was not necessary to seek Wuterich's approval. Neither Jones nor Vokey gave details of the conflict.

Wuterich's attorneys have filed a motion that seeks to have the case dismissed, arguing the defense has been compromised by the withdrawal of Vokey, the only defense attorney to go to Iraq to see the scene of the 2005 killings in the Iraqi village of Haditha.

Vokey had said he wanted to see the case to its end, but the Marine Corps retired him in 2008 over his objections, and he now works for a private firm that has caused the conflict.

The defense has called their dismissal motion the "Hutchins Motion" after Marine Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III, whose murder conviction was thrown out this spring by a military appeals court that ruled he was given an unfair trial because his military defense attorney was relinquished before his 2007 court martial.

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Wuterich's defense attorneys said the military in the past routinely retired military attorneys when their active duty was up, even if their cases were not finished, and no one questioned such practices. But that changed with the Hutchins' case, which the Navy is appealing.

Prosecutors tried to paint the motion as a last-ditch effort by the defense to prevent the case from being tried. They argued Vokey asked for retirement a month before he was detailed to the case and knew he would not see it through to the end.

Defense attorney Neal Puckett told The Associated Press that Vokey works for a firm that has represented another Camp Pendleton Marine who was being called by the prosecution to testify at Wuterich's trial, which would make it difficult for Vokey to cross-examine the witness.

Prosecutors said the witness was no longer represented by the firm. Vokey said that was irrelevant.

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Wuterich, 30, of Meriden, Conn., is accused of leading his men on a rampage that killed two dozen civilians after a roadside bomb killed a Marine. He was initially charged with unpremeditated murder in 18 deaths, but the charges were later reduced to voluntary manslaughter in nine of the 24 deaths, dereliction of duty and other crimes.

Seven other Marines also were initially charged with murder or failure to investigate the killings. Six of them have had charges dismissed or withdrawn, and one was acquitted.

Wuterich has pleaded not guilty to all the charges and has said he regretted the loss of civilian lives but believed he was operating within military combat rules when he ordered his men to attack.

The case has dragged on because of legal wrangling — including a dispute over whether prosecutors could use unaired footage from a 2007 interview Wuterich gave to "60 Minutes."

A military appeals court last year ordered the network to turn over some unaired portions to prosecutors.

On Monday, the judge released all unaired portions to both sides, saying he was leaving it up to the lawyers to decide how best to use them in court.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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