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Marine charged in Haditha killings wins key ruling from judge

March 23, 2010 |  5:08 pm

Wuterich The defense for the last Marine facing criminal charges in the fatal shooting of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in 2005 won a key ruling Tuesday that could lead to the case being dropped.

Lt. Col. David Jones, the military judge, ruled that attorneys for Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich had successfully shown that there was the possibility of what the military calls undue command influence in the decision by a general to send Wuterich to a court martial.

Jones' ruling requires that prosecutors prove beyond a reasonable doubt that no such influence existed or that, while it may have existed, it did not influence the general's decision.

Faced with a similar ruling in the case of another Marine charged in the Haditha killings, prosecutors could not meet the burden of proof to the judge's satisfaction. After losing an appeal, the Marine Corps dismissed charges against Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani.

Jones set a hearing for Wednesday to hear any evidence prosecutors want to present. Maj. Nicholas Gannon, one of the prosecutors, said he was "99.9% sure" that he has no further evidence.

During the two-day hearing at Camp Pendleton, Gen. James Mattis and retired Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland testified that their decisions to charge Wuterich were not improperly influenced. Jones promised to issue his ruling Friday afternoon.

If he rules against the prosecution, he could dismiss the charges against Wuterich, which include manslaughter, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, dereliction of duty and obstruction of justice.

He could also order the Marine Corps to hold a new preliminary hearing for Wuterich or assign the case to a general not "tainted" by the alleged undue influence. In that event, the Marine Corps could decide to drop the case, as it did with Chessani.

Jones said he was troubled by the fact that a lawyer who had been part of an early investigation into the Haditha killings later sat in on staff meetings where the Wuterich case was discussed. He also noted the fact that another lawyer advising the generals did not recuse himself from all aspects of the Haditha case after a run-in with the preliminary hearing judge for one of the defendants.

Wuterich, 30, showed no emotion when Jones issued his ruling.

Neal Puckett, one of Wuterich's attorneys, said his client "is in good spirits. He hasn't complained at all. He loves the Marine Corps and wants to make it a career."

Another of his attorneys, Haytham Faraj, said it was to the Marine Corps' credit that Mattis was ordered to undergo cross-examination about the case.

Of eight Marines charged in late 2006 in connection with the killings, six had their cases dismissed and one was found not guilty. Wuterich was the squad leader when Marines began searching nearby buildings after a roadside bomb killed one Marine and injured two.

Five Iraqis were killed by the Marines near the blast, and 19 others were killed in three houses. None was ever shown to have insurgent ties or to have been involved in the bomb blast.

-- Tony Perry at Camp Pendleton

Photo: Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich. Credit: Los Angeles Times