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Haditha Lawyers Say Prosecution Has Problems

From the San Diego North County Times:

Haditha prosecution said to be fraught with problems

By: MARK WALKER – Staff Writer

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

NORTH COUNTY —- The U.S. government’s prosecution against eight Camp Pendleton Marines in the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in the Iraqi city of Haditha in 2005 is fraught with problems, according to sources with intimate knowledge of the case.

The difficulties include conflicting statements from Iraqis whose testimony led to the charges and an incomplete forensic reconstruction of the events on Nov. 19, 2005, that have resulted in prosecutors’ delaying the start of hearings against some of the accused, the sources said.

Also at issue are interrogations of suspects conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Iraq during which agents allegedly refused to provide attorneys for some of those who asked for them and refused the men bathroom breaks, the sources contend.

“It’s a mess,” one source said of the investigation that prompted a worldwide outcry when the first came to light —- one of two Iraqi civilian-killing cases involving Camp Pendleton Marines.

An examination of where the Haditha case stands was cobbled together by the North County Times through multiple interviews and corroborations by people familiar with evidence gathered since the investigation began last spring.

Marine prosecutors won’t comment on the case or any of the issues cited by the sources under a standing order that forbids them from doing so.

Eight men from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment are accused of wrongdoing in the slayings that included several women and children and took place shortly after a roadside bomb destroyed a Humvee and killed a lance corporal.

Four of the accused are enlisted men facing unpremeditated murder and negligent homicide charges. The other four are officers accused of dereliction of duty for allegedly failing to properly investigate and report what happened.

Hearings delayed

The first court action in the case was to begin this month. Article 32 hearings in which the prosecution and defense lay out their cases before a hearing officer to help determine if the charges should move on to court-martial proceedings were slated for two of the defendants, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the highest-ranking man charged in the case, and Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt.

Those hearings have been postponed, however, and the tentative schedule now calls for Chessani’s hearing to begin May 30. A firm date for Sharratt’s hearing, which the government asked to postpone because it did not have all of its evidence ready, has not been established.

Each of the accused remains assigned to Camp Pendleton and each is working in tasks that keep him on the base. None is jailed, as were eight other men from another base regiment who were charged in June with killing one Iraqi civilian in April 2006 in the village of Hamdania.

The Marine Corps has said the men in the Hamdania case, in which five of the accused reached deals with prosecutors and pleaded guilty, were potential flight risks and therefore were placed in the brig after being returned from Iraq.

When the Haditha defendants were charged Dec. 21, the Marine Corps said it did not consider them flight risks and therefore none was ordered jailed.

12-hour interrogations

When the Haditha case reaches court, defense attorneys are expected to challenge the Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s reconstruction of the Haditha events and ask agents why they refused to provide attorneys for suspects who asked for them. The service is a Navy agency made up of civilian law enforcement agents.

Some of the interrogations that took place in Iraq before the regiment returned to Camp Pendleton in April took place over as long as 12 hours, according to one knowledgeable source, and the suspects were not allowed to take bathroom breaks. Instead, they were given bottles to use to relief themselves, the source said.

The treatment of the suspects was so bad that at least two officers who were not a direct part of the investigation complained to their superiors, the source said.

Efforts to reach agency spokesmen in Washington for a response Tuesday were not immediately successful and telephone messages were not returned.

In January, a team of prosecutors from Camp Pendleton went to Iraq and spent several weeks in Haditha interviewing witnesses and seeing the four houses that were assaulted following the roadside bomb attack that killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas of Texas.

Part of the reason for that trip, according to several sources, was because the forensic reconstruction done by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service was considered lacking.

Unlike the Hamdania case, where the victim’s body was exhumed and examined by a forensic pathologist at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, there were no exhumations of victims in Haditha and therefore no forensic medical reports.

Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who led the enlisted men, has acknowledged ordering the shooting of five men who emerged from a car that happened upon the scene shortly after the bombing.
He also has acknowledged ordering the assault of the homes where the 19 others died. His Article 32 hearing is tentatively set to begin June 4.

Wuterich and attorneys for the other men charged with homicide contend that while the civilian deaths were regrettable, the Marines’ actions were within the military’s rules of engagement.

Wuterich told the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes” last month that he was following what he understood to be the rules of engagement when he ordered his men to assault the homes where most of the civilians died.

In the wake of that broadcast there has been an outpouring of support for Wuterich, his lead attorney Neal Puckett said Tuesday.

A ‘political scapegoat’

Jack Zimmerman, a Texas attorney hired to represent Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum, said Tuesday that he was just finishing his reading of the thousand of pages of investigative documents generated by the government.

“Based upon that information, we remain confident that Lance Cpl. Tatum responded the way he should have responded,” Zimmerman said.

Brian Rooney, a Michigan attorney helping represent Lt. Col. Chessani, announced Tuesday that a defense fund had been established for their client, whom he contends is a “political scapegoat.”

A former Marine officer, Rooney and Robert Muise of the Christian-based Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., are representing Chessani with the assistance of appointed military attorneys.
Rooney said Tuesday that if the case moves beyond an Article 32 hearing and goes to trial, the cost of defending him could reach $1 million.

The center defends and promotes anti-abortion causes and is representing Chessani free of charge, but says it is accepting donations to underwrite its expenses.

Chessani faces up to three years in prison and dismissal from the Marine Corps if convicted. The enlisted men facing murder charges could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.

Clearly this is the Marines’ lawyers side of things.

But it is good to hear their side for a change.

This article was posted by Steve on Wednesday, April 11th, 2007. Comments are currently closed.

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