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Haditha killings: Marine's sentencing hearing is this morning

Frank

A sentencing hearing is set for Tuesday morning at Camp Pendleton for Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who pleaded guilty Monday to a single count of negligent dereliction of duty in the killing of 24 Iraqis in 2005.

Under the plea bargain with prosecutors, Wuterich could face a maximum three months in the brig and a reduction in rank. The prosecution has made no recommendation concerning a jail sentence.

After the hearing, a sentencing recommendation will be made by the judge, Lt. Col. David Jones; the final decision about whether Wuterich will receive jail time is up to Lt. Col. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Forces Central Command.

Waldhauser has approved the plea bargain.

In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors dropped manslaughter and assault charges and other dereliction of duty charges. If convicted on all counts, Wuterich could have been given 152 years in prison.

At Monday's brief hearing, nothing was said about a discharge for Wuterich, who has been kept on active duty. That could mean that his discharge will be handled not through the court-martial but through an administrative proceeding, with the decision made by Waldhauser.

Wuterich, 31, was the squad leader when Marines killed 24 civilians in the Euphrates River community of Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005.

As part of his plea bargain, Wuterich told the judge that he now regrets having told his Marines to "shoot first, ask questions later" as they stormed two houses in search of a suspected insurgent gunman.

At a sentencing hearing, it is common for the judge to hear testimony about the defendant's "good military character." During the trial, a retired sergeant-major praised Wuterich as an excellent Marine.

Wuterich had never been in a combat situation that involved gunfire before the fateful morning. He wears a coveted Combat Action Ribbon for his actions that morning, bestowed only on Marines who have been under fire and returned fire.

The plea bargain brought immediate and widely divergent reactions. Some Iraqi leaders blasted the U.S. military for failing to convict any of the eight Marines originally charged in the Haditha killings.

But former and active-duty Marines praised the deal and the prosecution's decision to end the Haditha case.

In his opening statement to the jury two weeks ago, one of Wuterich's defense attorneys said it was time to "move on" from Haditha.

"I ask you to give Staff Sgt. Wuterich his life back and put Haditha behind us," defense attorney Haytham Faraj told the eight jurors, all combat veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan or both. "It's time to move on."

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-- Tony Perry

Photo: Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich. Credit: Associated Press

 
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