Military prosecutors have granted immunity to at least seven Marines connected to an attack that killed 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha, the deadliest criminal case against U.S. troops in the Iraq war.
Orders granting the immunity ensure any testimony the Marines volunteer cannot be used against them, making it highly unlikely charges will be brought against the men. They also suggest their eyewitness accounts will feature prominently in military court hearings for seven other Marines charged in the case.
The orders were obtained by The Associated Press from someone involved in the case who declined to be identified because the documents are not public.
Among those provided with immunity to testify are an officer who told troops to raid a house and a sergeant who took photographs of the dead but later deleted them from his camera.
One of the servicemen, Lance Cpl. Humberto Manuel Mendoza, was a member of the squad that cleared several homes and killed the Iraqis in the aftermath of a Nov. 19, 2005 roadside bomb attack that killed one Marine.
‘I was following my training’
Mendoza, who was not charged in the case, told investigators that he shot at least two men, but did so because they were in houses declared hostile.
"I was following my training that all individuals in a hostile house are to be shot," Mendoza told investigators. He was given immunity Dec. 18, just days before the Marine Corps announced murder charges against four enlisted men and dereliction of duty charges against four officers.
The Marine Corps said Tuesday that it dropped all charges against one of the eight men, Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz of Chicago. Dela Cruz also has been given immunity to testify.
1st Lt. William Kallop, the first officer to arrive at the scene of the explosion, was granted immunity to talk to prosecutors April 3 as part of an order to "cooperate and truthfully answer all questions posed by investigators." He has not been charged in the case.
Kallop was with a rapid-response force that arrived minutes after the bomb went off. According to investigative documents, he said squad leader Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich and Cpl. Hector Salinas heard gunfire coming from a nearby house. Kallop told investigators that he ordered the men to "take the house."
In the ensuing raids on several homes, 24 Iraqis died, including women and children. Wuterich is charged with 13 counts of unpremeditated murder; Salinas has not been charged.
Kallop's attorney did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Two other officers and several enlisted men were also given immunity to testify.
A legal expert said by giving so many people immunity, prosecutors are taking a "conservative" approach to the case, which is the biggest to have emerged against U.S. troops since the start of the war in Iraq.
"These are legitimate moves by the prosecutor, who is very cautious," said Gary Solis, a former Marine Corps prosecutor and judge who teaches law of war at Georgetown University Law Center.
A Marine spokesman did not immediately respond to a phone message Friday.
Preliminary hearings for the seven Marines still facing charges are expected in the coming weeks at Camp Pendleton.
Aside from Wuterich, the others facing unpremeditated murder charges are Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, 22, of Canonsburg, Pa. and Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum, 25, of Edmund, Okla.
Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, 42, of Rangely, Colo., 1st Lt. Andrew A. Grayson, 25, Capt. Lucas McConnell, 31, of Napa, Calif., and Capt. Randy W. Stone, 34, face charges in connection with how the incident was investigated or reported.