CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. - With eight Marines charged in connection with the
deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians, the Marine Corps sent a clear message to its
officers: They will be held accountable for the actions of their subordinates.
In the biggest US criminal case
involving civilian deaths to come out of the Iraq war, four of the
Marines - all enlisted men - were charged Thursday with unpremeditated
David Wuterich, the father of US
Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, listens to a question as he met
with reporters outside his home in Meriden, Conn., Thursday, Dec. 21,
But the remaining four Marines in the case are officers, the highest ranking
among them a lieutenant colonel. They were charged with dereliction of duty for
failing to report or properly investigate the killings in the Iraqi town of
Haditha last year.
The case marks the largest number of US officers to be charged in an alleged
crime since the start of the Iraq war, said John Hutson, a former Navy judge
"The honorable thing is not to 'protect' your subordinates," said Hutson, who
is now president of New Hampshire's Franklin Pierce Law Center. "The honorable
thing is to look above that and realize they have a greater responsibility to
the Marine Corps and military justice system."
Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, 42, of Rangely, Colo., was charged with failing
to accurately report and thoroughly investigate a possible violation and
dereliction of duty. He could face dismissal and up to two years in prison.
Hutson said officers play an integral role in the way crimes are reported and
how military justice is handled. He said if the officers did fail to properly
investigate the deaths, their failures were more enduring "than these guys who
allegedly murdered people."
Besides Chessani, officers charged in connection with how the incident was
investigated or reported included 1st Lt. Andrew A. Grayson, 25; Capt. Lucas
McConnell, 31, of Napa, Calif., and Capt. Randy W. Stone, 34, a military
The charges followed an investigation into Iraqi allegations that Marines
went on a rampage after one of their own was killed by a bomb.
Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, 26, was charged with the unpremeditated murder
of 12 people, and the murder of six others by ordering Marines about to enter a
house to "shoot first and ask questions later," according to court papers
released by his attorney, Neal Puckett. He faces the possibility of life in
prison if convicted.
Puckett said his client carried out the killings in accordance with his
"There's no question that innocent people died that day, but Staff Sergeant
Wuterich believes, and I believe, they did everything they were trained to do,"
Wuterich was also charged with making a false official statement and
soliciting another sergeant to make false official statements.
Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz, 24, of Chicago, was accused of the unpremeditated
murders of five people and making a false official statement with intent to
Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, 22, of Canonsburg, Pa., was accused of the
unpremeditated murder of three Iraqis. Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum, 25, of
Edmund, Okla., was charged with the unpremeditated murders of two Iraqis,
negligent homicide of four Iraqi civilians and a charge of assault upon two
The Marines, who are based at Camp Pendleton, have been under investigation
since March. None will be placed in pretrial confinement, because they are not
deemed a flight risk or a danger to themselves or others, said Col. Stewart
Navarre, chief of staff for Marine Corps Installations West.
The Iraqis were killed in the hours following a roadside bomb that rocked a
Marine patrol on the morning of Nov. 19, 2005. The blast killed Lance Cpl.
Miguel Terrazas of El Paso, Texas, and injured two others. The Marine Corps said
again Thursday that insurgents fired guns after the blast.
In the aftermath, five men were shot as they approached the scene in a taxi
and others - including women and children - died as Marines went house
to house in the area, clearing homes with grenades and gunfire.
Terrazas' father denounced the charges.
"What they are doing to our troops ... it's just wrong," he told The
Associated Press in Texas. "I feel for their families. They are in my prayers."
Defense attorneys have said their clients were doing what they had been
trained to do: respond to a perceived threat with legitimate force. The Marines
remained in combat for months after the killings.
A criminal probe was launched after Time magazine reported in March, citing
survivor accounts and human rights groups, that innocent people were killed.
The Marine Corps initially reported that 15 Iraqis died in a roadside bomb
blast, and Marines killed eight insurgents in an ensuing fire fight. That
account was widely discredited and later reports put the number of dead Iraqis
Lt. Gen. James Mattis, commanding general of the Marine Corps Central
Command, said Thursday that the Corps' initial news release, which said the
civilians in Haditha had been killed by an improvised explosive device, was
"We now know with certainty that the press release was incorrect, and that
none of the civilians were killed by the IED explosion," Mattis said in another