Court-martial begins for last Marine charged in Haditha civilian killings

Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich  is  charged in the deaths of 24 Iraqis during a military operation in 2005.

Story highlights

  • Prosecutors are presenting witnesses against Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich
  • A jury of eight Marines hears opening remarks from prosecutors and defense
  • Wuterich denies manslaughter and other charges
  • 24 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2005 in a case likened to Vietnam's My Lai massacre
Prosecutors have begun the court-martial of a Marine squad leader accused in the 2005 killings of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha, a Marine spokesman said Tuesday. Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 31, of Meriden, Connecticut, is the last person to be tried in a case that critics have likened to a war atrocity.
A jury of eight Marines -- four officers and four enlisted personnel -- continued to hear testimony Tuesday from prosecution witnesses, said Marine Lt. Col. Joe Kloppel, a spokesman with the Marine Central Command.
Wuterich is standing trial at Southern California's Camp Pendleton on nine counts of voluntary manslaughter in the November 19, 2005, killings.
Wuterich has denied the charges. Camp Pendleton, a Marine base where Wuterich is also stationed, is about an 85-mile drive south of downtown Los Angeles.
Wuterich was one of eight Marines charged in the case, which saw charges dropped against six and another acquitted. Wuterich faces additional charges of aggravated assault, dereliction of duty, obstruction of justice and reckless endangerment, according to court records.
If found guilty on all charges, Wuterich faces up to 152 years in prison, Kloppel said.
On Monday, the eight jurors -- all men who have combat experience in Iraq, Afghanistan or both -- heard opening remarks from prosecutors and the defense, and then prosecutors presented their first two witnesses, Kloppel said.
The first two witnesses were a now-retired Army colonel who was the investigating officer in the Iraqi deaths and an Army lieutenant colonel who acted as the military lawyer assisting in the inquiry, Kloppel said.
The court-martial is expected to last three weeks, Kloppel said.
The Haditha case, one of a handful of alleged war crimes cases that came to light during the height of the war, enraged Iraqis and put a spotlight on the conduct of the U.S. military. A U.S. congressman compared it to Vietnam's My Lai massacre. Haditha, a city of about 100,000, lies in what was known as the Sunni Triangle. That region northwest of the capital, Baghdad, is populated by mostly Sunni Muslim Arabs and was the site of some of the war's heaviest fighting.
The fallout from the killings still 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.
The court-martial comes on the heels of the December 31, 2011, deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq, though the last convoy ferrying troops departed from the country 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 newspaper in an exclusive interview last month.
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."