Marine to Serve No Time in Haditha War-Crimes Case

Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, left, arrives with his attorney for a court session at Camp Pendleton in Camp Pendleton, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012.

Photo: Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, left, arrives with his attorney for a court session at Camp Pendleton, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

January 24, 2012
Watch our 2008 film Rules of Engagement— the untold story of what happened in Haditha and how it forced the U.S. military to confront the rules of war in a way it never had to before.

Marine Lt. Col. David Jones sentenced Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich to demotion in rank to private for negligent dereliction of duty for his role in the killing of Iraqi civilians in Haditha, Iraq in 2005.  Wuterich led a squad of Marines who killed 24 Iraqi civilians in one of the most infamous episodes of the war.  Wuterich was also technically sentenced to 90 days confinement, but by the terms of the plea deal, he will not serve any time.  The sentence means none of the Marines accused in the incident will face time in prison.

Yesterday the prosecution agreed to drop the existing 13 charges against Wuterich, which ranged from manslaughter to multiple counts of willful dereliction of duty in exchange for the single count of negligent dereliction, a much less serious charge.  Lt. Col. David Jones could have sentenced Wuterich to as much as three months in prison along with the demotion. Under his original chargesheet, Wuterich could have faced life in prison.

Yesterday, the trial was unexpectedly interrupted when both sides announced they had reached a deal, and in fact had been negotiating through the weekend.  Today, the judge heard from several character witnesses called by the defense, along with a statement read by Sgt. Wuterich. Wuterich’s lawyers argued that he should receive no punishment.  After deliberating for fewer than three hours, the judge announced his sentence.

In a prepared statement delivered at the end of his sentencing hearing, Wuterich for the first time spoke directly to the families of the Iraqis who were killed by his squad.

Words cannot express my sorrow for the loss of your loved one. I know there is nothing I can say to ease your pain. I wish to assure you that on that day, it was never my intention [to] harm you or your families. I know that you are the real victims of Nov. 19, 2005.

When my Marines and I cleared those houses that day, I responded to what I perceived as a threat and my intention was to eliminate that threat in order to keep the rest of my Marines alive. So when I told my team to shoot first and ask questions later, the intent wasn’t that they would shoot civilians, it was that they would not hesitate in the face of the enemy.

Reaction to the plea deal in Iraq was a combination of anger and indignation. “This sentence gives us the proof, the solid proof that the Americans don’t respect human rights,” Haditha resident Ali Badr told Reuters.

Whatever the perception of the plea deal, it’s not clear that Wuterich would have faced a worse outcome had the trial gone to the jury.

There are still a few legal matters to resolve before Wuterich is a free man.  Before the plea is finalized, Judge Lt. Col. Jones will reconvene the jury one last time tomorrow morning.  Once the plea is formally entered and the jury is dismissed, Lt. Col. Jones’ sentence will be referred to the “convening authority,” Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser for a final adjudication.  The convening authority can reduce the sentence or leave it unchanged, but may not increase the punishment.

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