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Marine charged in Haditha, Iraq, killings pleads guilty to lesser charge

By Stan Wilson, CNN
updated 2:01 PM EST, Mon January 23, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich pleads guilty to a single count of dereliction of duty
  • Voluntary manslaughter and assault counts are dropped, the military says
  • Charges previously were dropped against six others, and one man was acquitted

San Diego (CNN) -- After years of delay, the court-martial of the last of eight Marines charged in the shooting deaths of 24 Iraqis in the village of Haditha in 2005 ended in a guilty plea to one count of negligent dereliction of duty, officials said Monday.

The plea by Staff Sgt. Frank G. Wuterich came nearly two weeks into his court-martial at Camp Pendleton near San Diego. Charges were dropped against six of the other Marines charged in the case, and one was acquitted.

After discussions between prosecutors and defense attorneys, Wuterich agreed to the plea and admitted that he was derelict in the performance of his duty, according to a statement by Marine Corps Base.

"Wuterich clearly showed that (he) accepted responsibility for his actions and will now be held accountable for those actions," the statement said.

Jury selection began January 7 in the case, which became a lightning rod for critics of the war.

Wuterich, 31, of Meriden, Connecticut, faced nine counts of voluntary manslaughter, two counts of assault with a dangerous weapon, and three counts of dereliction of duty in the November 19, 2005, killings, charges he has vehemently denied. Under the plea agreement, the other charges are being dropped, said according Marine Master Sgt. Chad McMeen.

A sentencing hearing on his guilty plea will be set Tuesday,

Maximum punishment for the single guilty charge is confinement of three months, two-thirds forfeiture of pay for three months and reduction in rank to private (E-1), McMeen said.

The trial judge, Lt. Col. David Jones, is expected to issue a sentence Tuesday, said Lt. Col. Joseph Kloppel.

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 continues more than six years later, 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.

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

According to previous testimony and court records, Wuterich, who was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, was the squad leader on November 19, 2005, when his patrol hit a roadside bomb that killed one Marine and wounded another. The Marines also were shot at.

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 step that was first reported by CNN.

The incident 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."

After the trial judge hands down a sentence, a final adjudication will be made by Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command, Kloppel said.

He "can reduce a sentence but cannot increase it," Kloppel said.

CNN's Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this report

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