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Marine in Haditha killings trial has to decide: Fight or take a deal

January 19, 2012 |  7:38 pm

FrankThis could be the longest night of Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich’s life since he became a defendant in arguably the largest war-crime case from the war in Iraq: the killing of 24 unarmed civilians by Marines in the Euphrates River town of Haditha in 2005.

The 31-year-old native of Meriden, Conn., has to decide whether to take a deal offered by Marine prosecutors or continue fighting for a full acquittal and an honorable discharge.

If he takes a deal, he could immediately leave the Marine Corps and continue life as a divorced father of three daughters. But that deal could come with a kind of discharge that would keep him from being eligible for veterans benefits.

But if he decides to continue fighting the charges against him  -- manslaughter, assault and dereliction of duty  --  he could end up with a conviction on one or more of the counts,  which would also bring a discharge under less than honorable grounds.

Little, if anything, in the first two weeks of the trial suggests that prosecutors are in a strong position to force Wuterich to admit guilt. The case has encountered the kind of problems that led to charges against six other Marines being dropped  -- just as the hearing officer in Wuterich's 2007 preliminary hearing predicted.

Prosecution witnesses testified that Wuterich followed orders and training in leading his Marines into homes were Marines thought a gunman had been firing at them.  “He was a great Marine,” said retired Sgt. Major Edward Sax.

Three other Marines, given immunity to testify against Wuterich, underwent withering cross-examination about their changing accounts of what happened in Haditha. “Are you telling the truth today?” defense attorney Haytham Faraj demanded of a Marine sergeant.

After hearing Faraj's cross-examination Wednesday of one such witness, the judge, Lt. Col. David Jones, abruptly recessed the trial and told the opposing attorneys to "look for options." Negotiations continued Thursday.

It’s not unusual when a trial ends in an agreement for the defendant to admit to a solo charge, a kind of face-saving for prosecutors who, having spent years and considerable resources, suddenly decide to call it quits.

In the Wuterich case, that could include an admission of responsibility for not having been more careful in what he told Marines as they prepared to “clear” houses --  for having told them to “shoot first, ask questions later.”

As the court case moved slowly to trial, Wuterich has been retained on active-duty, taken college courses, and won custody of his three daughters.

In an email to the North (San Diego) County Times, he wrote about the limbo of waiting for the case to come to trial --  of the conflicting desires to tell his side of the story and win an acquittal but also to move on with his life.

“I’ve built a life the best I could within the confines of this case,” Wuterich wrote. “I’ve at least created the illusion for myself of making progress in my life, although I know I’ve really been stuck in one place waiting to move on.”

The court is set to convene at 8:30 a.m. Friday.

--Tony Perry at Camp Pendleton

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