The Western Judicial Military Circuit Court at Camp Pendleton [official website] heard opening statements Monday in the trial of the US Marine squad leader allegedly responsible for the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in November 2005. Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich [advocacy website; JURIST news archive] is charged [case materials] with voluntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, dereliction of duty and obstruction of justice in relation to the killings, which took place in the Iraqi town of Haditha [JURIST news archive] after Wuterich supposedly overreacted to the roadside bombing death of a fellow Marine. Wuterich, who had no previous combat experience, allegedly ordered his men to "shoot first and ask questions later" when he sent them to hunt for insurgents [AFP report] in several houses along the road following the bombing. Many of the killed Iraqis were shot in the head inside the houses. The victims included 10 women and children killed at point-blank range. The Marine jurors for the trial include four officers and four enlisted men, ranging in rank from gunnery sergeant to lieutenant colonel, all of whom have done tours of duty in Iraq. Seven other marines were charged throughout the investigation, but charges were dismissed in six cases, and one Marine was acquitted, angering Iraqi authorities who wanted the Marines tried in Iraqi courts. Wuterich is the sole Marine still facing charges relating to the Haditha investigation.
A US military judge denied a motion to dismiss [JURIST report] the charges against Wuterich in 2010, setting the trial in motion. His trial was postponed in 2008 [JURIST report] while prosecutors appealed a decision to get rid of a subpoena for an unaired portion of a CBS interview with him regarding the incident. Wuterich was originally charged with unpremeditated murder, but that charge was dropped after a recommendation from an investigating officer [JURIST report] in 2007. Charges against Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani [JURIST news archive] were dropped in June 2008, a decision that was upheld [JURIST reports] the following March. Also in June 2008 1st Lt. Andrew Grayson [JURIST news archive] was cleared on all counts, including charges that he ordered a subordinate officer to delete photographic evidence [JURIST reports] of the killings. In August 2007 all charges against Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt and Capt. Randy W. Stone were dismissed [JURIST report]. An official report on the Haditha incident by US Army Major General Eldon Bargewell found "serious misconduct" [JURIST report] at all levels of the US Marine Corps chain of command.