Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich talks to the media as his attorney, Neal Puckett, looks on after a 2010 pretrial hearing at Camp Pendleton in California. Wuterich is charged with voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in 2005.
Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich talks to the media as his attorney, Neal Puckett, looks on after a 2010 pretrial hearing at Camp Pendleton in California. Wuterich is charged with voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in 2005. Chris Carlson/AP
One of the more controversial episodes of the Iraq War will be revisited in a military courtroom in California this week.
In November 2005, a Marine squad killed 24 Iraqis, some of them women and children, in the village of Haditha. Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich led the squad of Marines, and on Wednesday he'll face voluntary manslaughter charges at Camp Pendleton.
"He's going to be glad to have it over because he knows that he'll be exonerated," says Wuterich's lawyer, Neal Puckett. "The world will know the truth about what happened at Haditha can't be attributed to his criminal behavior, and he just needs to move on with his life."
There's still confusion about exactly what happened that day in Haditha, but what is beyond dispute is that Marines came under attack.
Rules of Engagement
A roadside bomb exploded, killing a Marine and wounding two others. Then a car pulled up. The five Iraqis inside were ordered out. They were unarmed. Wuterich described the day's events on CBS' 60 Minutes back in 2007.
"They started to take off, so I shot at them," he said. All five were killed by Wuterich and another Marine.
Puckett says the Marines were within their rights. "The rules of engagement at the time said that after an IED explosion, if you see a military-age male running, he can be engaged," he says.
The Marines could shoot if they were engaged, but that wasn't the end of it.
The Marines said they began taking rifle fire. Wuterich thought it was coming from a nearby house.
The Marines tossed grenades and then burst into the house, firing their assault weapons. Wuterich told 60 Minutes what he saw next.
"There may have been women in there," he said. "[There] may have been children in there." But no weapons were found.
Wuterich was asked why the Marines didn't stop shooting. "My responsibility as a squad leader is to make sure that none of the rest of my guys died," he said. "And at that point, we were still on the assault."
The Marines charged into another house next-door. Again no weapons were found — and more women and children were killed inside.
All told, 24 Iraqis were killed. Eleven were women and children.
At the heart of the trial is whether the Marines responded appropriately to the threat that day, and whether they were following the rules of engagement that govern when a Marine can open fire.
Nov. 19, 2005 – A U.S. Marine and 24 Iraqi civilians, including 11 women and children, are killed in Haditha in central Iraq. The victims' families allege the Marines killed to avenge the death of their fellow Marine.
March 10, 2006 – A full criminal investigation is launched by the top Marine commander in western Iraq.
May 31, 2006 – President Bush makes his first public comments about the deaths in Haditha, promising, "If in fact, laws were broken, there will be punishment."
Dec. 21, 2006 – Following military evidence supporting allegations that Marines deliberately shot unarmed civilians, charges are filed against eight Marines, including Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich.
June 5, 2008 – First Lt. Andrew Grayson is acquitted of charges that he ordered photographs of those killed deleted from a camera and laptop. By this time, the other Marines have seen their cases dismissed or charges dropped, except for Wuterich.
Jan. 4, 2012 – Wuterich's trial, which had been delayed, is set to resume.
Prosecutors say Wuterich overreacted and disregarded the requirement to have a hostile target and positive identification before opening fire.
Eight Marines were initially charged in the killings. All but Wuterich either had their charges dismissed or were acquitted.
Gary Solis, a law professor and former Marine officer, says prosecutors are going after Wuterich because he was the leader.
"The accusation is that he not only did not control the troops," Solis says, "but more significantly, he actively participated in the offenses that are alleged to have been committed in Haditha."
But Wuterich's lawyer, Neal Puckett, asks, "How could they have done it? Why would they have done it?"
"Those are the kinds of questions that I believe will be answered by the witnesses," he says.
Lines of Defense
Puckett says his client is being singled out, and he points to others who were there that day.
"Three enlisted Marines had their charges dismissed," Puckett says, "we believe in an effort to try to improve the very weak case against Staff Sgt. Wuterich."
That will be one line of defense.
Whether Wuterich will move on with his life — or face years in prison — will be determined during the military trial, which is expected to last a month. Some 50 witnesses will testify. Solis faults military prosecutors for not pressing for a speedier trial.
"After six years," Solis says, "memories fade, and the relevance of evidence may even fade — certainly evidence may be lost."
That means the case may be hard to prove, he says.