Marine to face court-martial in killings of 24 Iraqi civilians

A military judge Friday rejected a defense request to throw out charges against the last Marine accused in the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in 2005.

The judge, Lt. Col. David Jones, had ruled Tuesday it was possible that two generals who brought charges against Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich had been subject to what the military calls undue command influence.

But Friday, Jones ruled that he saw no indication of actual influence on Gen. James Mattis or retired Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland. Both, he said, conducted an "unbiased assessment" of the case before sending charges.

Mattis sent charges to a preliminary hearing in December 2006. Helland sent the case to a court-martial a year later, after that hearing.

In making his Tuesday ruling, Jones said the prosecution had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that no undue influence existed. In turning down the defense request Friday, the judge ruled that prosecutors had "overwhelmingly" met that burden.

Wuterich's court-martial is set for Sept. 13 on a variety of charges, including manslaughter, aggravated assault, dereliction of duty, reckless endangerment and obstruction of justice. He remains on active duty.

The 30-year-old from Connecticut is the only Marine still facing charges. He showed no emotion after the ruling.

Wuterich told Jones that he preferred to have a jury composed of Marines; by Marine law, the jury will have at least one-third enlisted personnel. He could have opted to have a trial by a military judge.

"I'm actually happy to see there is a trial date and that this will be over soon," Wuterich told reporters. ". . . It's been a tough five years, seeing everybody else exonerated."

Wuterich is attached to a battalion responsible for billeting, contracting and maintenance. He served briefly as an instructor in Twentynine Palms, Calif., for Marines bound for combat duty in Afghanistan. He has asked to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan, but been rejected.

Charges have been dropped against six Marines; one was acquitted. The enlisted Marines were accused in the killings and the officers were charged with failing to launch a war crimes investigation.

Faced with similar issues of alleged undue influence, another judge ruled differently, leading to the dropping of dereliction-of-duty charges against Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the battalion commander.

Wuterich was the squad leader on Nov. 19, 2005, when Marines killed five Iraqis in the street and 19 others in three homes while searching for insurgents who may have been involved in detonating a roadside bomb that killed one Marine and injured two others.

The accusations of undue command influence arose because a Marine lawyer who was part of an initial investigation into the killings later sat in on meetings in which the case was discussed.

But there was no evidence the lawyer who was at the meeting to discuss other legal cases ever discussed the Haditha case at such meetings, Jones ruled.

"There was no chilling effect," Jones said. "The court must deal with facts, not conjecture."

Jones ruled that prosecutors did a better job in rebutting the undue influence charges in the Wuterich case than with Chessani.

Neal Puckett, one of Wuterich's lawyers, said he is confident that a jury composed of combat veterans will understand the pressures placed on young Marines.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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