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Court-martial opens with varying views of Marine accused in killings

January 9, 2012 | 12:32 pm

Frank Wuterich The court-martial at Camp Pendleton of a Marine staff sergeant accused in the deaths of 24 Iraqis in Haditha in 2005 began Monday with sharply contrasting views of the defendant.

Maj. Nicholas Gannon, the lead prosecutor, told jurors that Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich made “a series of fatal assumptions and lost control of himself” -- first in killing five young men outside their car and then, as a squad leader, giving Marines a “shoot to kill” order in sweeping through nearby houses.

Gannon said that, even after it was known that the dead included women and children, Wuterich insisted to a military investigators that his Marines “did their job, they did it well.”

But defense attorney Haytham Faraj said that Wuterich had followed both his orders and the rules of engagement after being told by a lieutenant to “clear” houses near where a bomb explosion had just killed one Marine and injured two others.

The death of noncombatants,  Faraj said, was “the unfortunate result of a squad leader doing the best he could that day.”

Wuterich and other Marines from his battalion had been told that Haditha “was going to be another Fallouja” and that “complex attacks” were being planned against Marines, Faraj said.

An initial military investigation found that Wuterich had done nothing wrong and that, given the situation, it was unreasonable to expect the Marines to make individual identifications of people inside the houses to determine if they had “hostile intent” toward the Marines.

Later, an investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service came to a different conclusion, leading to charges against eight Marines. Charges against six of them were later dropped and one Marine was found not guilty.

The clashing evaluations of Wuterich came as attorneys made their opening statements in a court martial expected to take up to a month. Wuterich, 31, is charged with dereliction of duty, assault and manslaughter.

On one point the prosecution and defense agreed: Wuterich was on his first combat deployment and had never before been under fire.


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-- Tony Perry at Camp Pendleton

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