Possible Deal for Last Suspect in Haditha Court-Martial?
Photo: A Jan. 9, 2008 file photo shows Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich arriving for his arraignment at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in San Diego County. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
“A U.S. Marine and 15 Iraqi civilians were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb in Haditha,” read a November 2005 U.S. military press release.
Four months later, Time magazine would report that it was U.S. Marines — not a roadside bomb — who were responsible for the deaths of 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians. Soon after, Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) would claim the Marines killed the Iraqis “in cold blood,” igniting a media firestorm which labeled Haditha a “massacre” and one of the worst atrocities of the Iraq war.
But as subsequent investigations — including our film Rules of Engagement — have revealed, the incident was far more complicated than originally reported.
And now Haditha’s final legal chapter may be coming to an abrupt end in a small courtroom here at Camp Pendleton in southern California, where Marine Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich faces charges ranging from voluntary manslaughter to dereliction of duty.
The trial has been on hold since yesterday afternoon, amid speculation over a possible deal. An unnamed source close to the investigation confirmed that negotiations were ongoing to Mark Walker of California’s North County Times.
The trial did not appear to be going well for the prosecution — in fact their own witnesses seemed to bolster Wuterich’s defense. His former superior, Sgt. Maj. Edward Sax testified that Wuterich was a “great Marine” on Tuesday. And Sgt. Humberto Mendoza, who had been given immunity to testify against Wuterich, spoke highly of Wuterich’s character on the stand.
Mendoza also testified that Wuterich did not give him orders to shoot the Iraqi civilians.
Mendoza’s testimony was cut short yesterday when the judge abruptly announced a break, dismissing the jury for the day without explanation. After the jury left the room, the judge told the prosecution and defense attorneys to explore “other options.”
Eight Marines were originally charged with involvement in the Haditha deaths or with failing to respond appropriately to the incident. Over the past several years, charges against seven of the Marines were dropped, dismissed, or fell apart in court. Additional charges against Wuterich, including multiple counts of murder, have already been dismissed.
Today the judge ordered the jury to report back to the courtroom tomorrow morning.
Related: Newly Discovered Documents Recount Killings of Iraqi Citizens at Haditha — In December, a New York Times reporter published this account of finding 400 pages of classified Marine interviews in a junkyard just outside Baghdad; intended for destruction, they were being burned for fuel to cook smoked carp.