The Marine Corps launched a rare tribunal Monday to publicly investigate disputed allegations that a special forces unit killed as many as 19 Afghan civilians after its military convoy was rammed by a car bomb.
The court of inquiry, an administrative proceeding last used by the Marine Corps more than 50 years ago, will focus on the actions of Maj. Fred C. Galvin, commander of the 120-person unit, and platoon leader Capt. Vincent J. Noble.
The officers were members of a Marine special operations company that opened fire March 4 along a crowded roadway in Nangahar province after an explosives-rigged minivan crashed into their convoy. No Marines were killed and only one was wounded.
Witnesses said the Marines fired indiscriminately at pedestrians and people in cars, buses and taxis in six locations along a 10-mile stretch of the road, according to a report issued by Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission.
A defense attorney said evidence would show the patrol followed regulations. Testimony was to start on Tuesday.
Military prosecutors declined to comment. In a statement, the Corps said the court would explore conduct of the convoy, rules of engagement, fire discipline, reporting of the incident and the "command climate" of the company.
Set to last two weeks
At the end of the inquiry, which is scheduled to last two weeks, the panel will recommend whether the officers should be charged with a crime.
That decision will ultimately rest with Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland, commander of U.S. Marine Forces Central Command.
Army Lt. Gen. Francis H. Kearney III, who led special operations forces in the Middle East at the time of the shootings, ordered eight Marines back to Camp Lejeune and removed the rest of the company from Afghanistan.
An Army brigade commander, 10th Mountain Division Col. John Nicholson, apologized in May, saying he was "deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people." Initial reports pegged the number of dead at 10 or 12, but Nicholson said officials had concluded 19 died and 50 were injured.
But the next week, Marine Corps commandant Gen. James T. Conway said Nicholson's apology was premature because an investigation remained under way.
In November, Maj. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik, the commander of the Marine Special Operations Command, said that the Marines responded correctly when they were attacked and that he disagreed with Kearney's decision to pull them out of Afghanistan.
The Defense Department's inspector general has since opened an investigation into Kearney's actions, responding to concerns raised by Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., who said the Army had "discarded the presumption of innocence."
Army general won't be called
Defense attorneys were told Monday they would not be allowed to call Kearney as a witness.
They have interviewed each of the 30 Marines in the six-vehicle reconnaissance patrol.
After the convoy's second vehicle was hit by the bomb, "the evidence is quite clear that the patrol received small arms fire from that location for approximately the next three miles," said Mark Waple, a civilian lawyer for Galvin.
"There is such a very clear line between the forensic evidence and the testimony of the Marines when compared to some of the statements of the Afghan civilians," Waple said.
A Navy investigation also found that at least one of the Afghan citizens who said they were injured "were told to make their claim for being injured so they could receive compensation. That's been a confusing factor in this situation," Waple said.
The Marine Corps last used the administrative fact-finding process in 1956, to investigate allegations a drill sergeant marched a group of recruits into a South Carolina creek, where six died.