One of the more controversial episodes of the Iraq war will be revisited in a military courtroom in California this week.
In November of 2005, a Marine squad killed 24 Iraqis, some of them women and children in the village of Haditha. Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich led the squad of Marines, and on Wednesday he’ll face voluntary manslaughter charges at Camp Pendleton.
“He’s going to be glad to have it over because he knows that he’ll be exonerated,” says Wuterich’s lawyer, Neal Puckett. “The world will know the truth about what happened at Haditha can’t be attributed to his criminal behavior and he just needs to move on with his life.”
There’s still confusion about exactly what happened that day in Haditha, but what is beyond dispute is that Marines came under attack.
Rules of Engagement
A roadside bomb exploded, killing a Marine and wounding two others. Then, a car pulled up. The five Iraqis inside were ordered out. They were unarmed. Wuterich described the day’s events on CBS’ 60 Minutes back in 2007.
“They started to take off so I shot at them,” he said.
All five were killed by Wuterich and another Marine.
Puckett says the Marines were within their rights.
He says, “The rules of engagement at the time said, that after an IED explosion if you see a military-age male running, he can be engaged.”
The Marines could shoot if they were engaged, but that wasn’t the end of it.
The Marines said they began taking rifle fire. Wuterich thought it was coming from a nearby house.
The Marines tossed grenades, and then burst into the house, firing their assault weapons.
Wuterich told 60 Minutes what he saw next.
“There may have been women in there,” he said. “[There] may have been children in there.”
But no weapons were found.
Wuterich was asked why the Marines didn’t stop shooting. “My responsibility as a squad leader is to make sure that none of the rest of my guys died,” he said. “And at that point we were still on the assault.”
The Marines charged into another house next door. Again no weapons were found — and more women and children were killed inside.
All told, twenty-four Iraqis were killed. Eleven were women and children.
At the heart of the trial is whether the Marines responded appropriately to the threat that day, and whether or not they were following the rules of engagement which govern when a Marine can open fire.
Prosecutors say Wuterich overreacted and disregarded the requirement to have a hostile target and positive identification before opening fire.
Eight Marines were initially charged in the killings. All but Wuterich either had their charges dismissed or were acquitted.
Gary Solis is a law professor and former Marine officer. He says prosecutors are going after Wuterich because he was the leader.
“The accusation is that he not only did not control the troops,” Solis says, “but more significantly, he actively participated in the offenses that are alleged to have been committed in Haditha.”
But Wuterich’s lawyer Neal Puckett asks, “How could they have done it? Why would they have done it?”
“Those are the kinds of questions that I believe will be answered by the witnesses,” he says.
Lines of Defense
Puckett says that his client is being singled out, and points to others who were there that day.
“Three enlisted Marines had their charges dismissed,” Puckett says. “We believe in an effort to try to improve the very weak case against Staff Sergeant Wuterich.”
That will be one line of defense.
Whether Wuterich will move on with his life — or face years in prison — will be determined during the military trial which is expected to last a month. Some 50 witnesses will testify.
Gary Solis, the law professor and former Marine, faults military prosecutors for not pressing for a speedier trial.
“After six years,” he says, “Memories fade, and the relevance of evidence may even fade, certainly evidence may be lost.”
That means, Solis says, that the case may be hard to prove.