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Jury selection to begin for last Marine accused in Iraq killings

By Chelsea J. Carter, CNN
updated 5:37 AM EST, Thu January 5, 2012
Jury selection will begin Thursday at Camp Pendleton in Southern California.
Jury selection will begin Thursday at Camp Pendleton in Southern California.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich was one of eight Marines initially charged in the case
  • Wuterich is accused of nine counts of voluntary manslaughter
  • Prosecutors contend 24 civilians were killed by the Marines in 2005
  • Wuterich has vehemently denied indiscriminate killings of civilians

(CNN) -- Jury selection begins Thursday for a Marine accused in the 2005 killings of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha, the last person to be tried in a case that became a lightning rod for critics of the war.

Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 31, of Meriden, Connecticut, will stand trial at Southern California's Camp Pendleton on nine counts of voluntary manslaughter in the November 19, 2005, killings, charges he has vehemently denied.

Wuterich was one of eight Marines charged in the case, which saw charges dropped against six and another acquitted. He faces additional charges of aggravated assault, dereliction of duty, obstruction of justice and reckless endangerment, according to court records.

The case, one of a handful of alleged war crimes cases that came to light during the height of the war, enraged Iraqis, put a spotlight on the conduct of the U.S. military and saw a U.S. congressman compare it to Vietnam's My Lai massacre.

The fallout from the killings more than six years later continues, with reports that Iraqi-U.S. negotiations to extend a withdrawal deadline broke down over Iraq's refusal to grant American troops immunity from prosecution in Iraq.

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The trial begins just days after the December 31, 2011, deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw, though the last convoy carrying American troops departed Iraq weeks earlier.

"I'm looking forward to being able to present my case and help everyone understand what happened that day, and why I'm not guilty of the charges I'm facing," Wuterich told The North County Times in an exclusive interview last month.

Telephone calls by CNN early Thursday to Wuterich's attorney, Neal Puckett, were not immediately returned.

According to previous testimony and court records, Wuterich was the squad leader on November 19, 2005, when his patrol hit a roadside bomb that killed one Marine and wounded another.

Wuterich is accused of ordering his men to storm three homes, part of what his attorney has said was a search for those believed responsible for planting the bomb and later shooting at the men.

During that raid, 24 Iraqis, including women and children, were killed.

The prosecution contends the men were out for revenge.

The case didn't come to light until January 2006 when Time magazine broke the story. Two months later, the military launched an investigation -- a story that was first reported by CNN.

The case earned the condemnation of the late Rep. John Murtha, D-Pennsylvania, who compared it to the 1968 massacre at My Lai, and then-President George W. Bush vowed that if an investigation found Marines killed unarmed civilians, "there will be a punishment."

The case has been delayed a number of times, most notably over a government subpoena for outtakes of a 2008 interview Wuterich gave to CBS "60 Minutes."

Military prosecutors are expected to begin presenting their case to a military jury on Friday.

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