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IRAQ: Squad leader's attorneys feel his case, like Marine officer's, has been 'tainted'

June 18, 2008 |  2:09 pm

Frank_2 Defense attorneys for Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich (pictured) believe a judge's decision to throw out charges against Marine Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani in the 2005 killings in Haditha bodes well for their client to get a similar ruling.

Col. Steven Folsom on Tuesday threw out dereliction of duty and willful disobedience charges against Chessani after agreeing with defense attorneys that the case had been "tainted" by the appearance of undue command influence.

Although a different judge is assigned to Wuterich's case, his attorneys have a similar motion pending.

"We believe the same defect exists in our case as in Chessani's case," Wuterich attorney Neal Puckett said.

Folsom ruled that Gen. James N. Mattis erred by allowing a Marine lawyer involved in the initial investigation of Haditha to sit in on meetings that Mattis had with Haditha prosecutors.

Reporters in the Camp Pendleton courtroom characterized Folsom's tone as a "stinging rebuke." At one point, one of the prosecutors tried standing up to make an argument, only to be told by Folsom to sit down and be quiet.

Chessani was charged with not investigating more thoroughly the killing of 24 Iraqis by Marines in his battalion on Nov. 19, 2005. Wuterich, the squad leader, is charged with voluntary manslaughter and several other counts.

Folsom gave prosecutors three days to appeal his decision. If they choose not to appeal, they can refile the charges, although Folsom's order said that decision cannot be made by Mattis' successor as commanding general of Marine Forces Central Command.

Meanwhile, Wuterich's court martial is on hold as prosecutors and CBS News wrangle over a demand for unbroadcast portions of a "60 Minutes" interview with Wuterich.

Chessani and Wuterich were rising stars in the Marine Corps until the Haditha incident. Now both only want to leave the corps and put Haditha behind them.

Of the eight Marines charged in the Haditha killings, five have had charges against them dropped and a sixth was found not guilty. Only the prosecutions of Chessani and Wuterich remain.

— Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, two months before the incident in Haditha. Credit: Lucian Reed / Atlas Pictures