A still frame taken from a YouTube video shows Marines who were later disciplined for desecrating three dead Taliban members in a 2011 incident in the southern Afghan province of Helmand.
In a case that caused a major stir last year, a YouTube video surfaced showing Marines in Afghanistan joking and laughing as they urinated on three dead Taliban fighters. The Marines involved in the July 2011 incident in the southern province of Helmand were disciplined.
It seemed the case was over, but now it has taken a strange twist. There are allegations that the Marines' top officer, Gen. James Amos, illegally interfered with the judicial proceedings in an effort to ensure harsher penalties.
Amos spoke about the video and other incidents last year during a worldwide tour of Marine bases. And in a written statement after the video came to light, he said the Marine Corps would not rest until the allegations were resolved.
He appointed a senior officer, Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, to investigate. Waldhauser said Amos told him he wanted those involved "crushed" and kicked out of the Marine Corps.
Waldhauser told Amos the incident didn't deserve that kind of harsh action. Amos told him he could appoint someone else to handle the cases, Waldhauser recalled in court papers, saying the conversation was tense but professional. A few hours later, Amos relieved the investigating general.
"It just smells so bad. I've never seen anything like this," says Gary Solis, who became a Marine lawyer in 1971 and is now a law professor. He said the removal of the investigating general is a problem for Amos.
"That apparently was done so he could get a better result," said Solis. "And that's unlawful command influence."
A Threat To Military Justice
Unlawful command influence is often called the mortal enemy of military justice. And it means a senior officer improperly acts to influence those taking part in an independent judicial process. Among the rules: A commander may not order a subordinate to dispose of a case in a certain way.
Amos declined to talk to NPR. But he sent Waldhauser a memo the same day he was fired. In it, Amos said his comments "could be perceived as possibly interfering" with the cases. So he was removing Waldhauser to avoid any "potential issues." Marine officials said much the same in a statement to NPR.
Waldhauser now serves as the military assistant to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and has declined interviews. He was replaced on the Marine investigation.
Then the story took another turn.
A Marine lawyer, Maj. James Weirick, was increasingly troubled by what he saw. There was an apparent effort to withhold information from the defense, including the details of Waldhauser's removal. That removal might show unlawful command influence and could lead to dismissal of the cases.
Weirick complained to his bosses and heard nothing. So in March of this year, he filed a complaint with the Pentagon inspector general, charging Amos and his staff with unlawful command influence and suppressing evidence.
"He spoke truth to power. And there's a consequence for that, unfortunately, in this world. He's paying the price for that," says Lee Thweatt, a former Marine lawyer and friend of Weirick.
Removed From The Job
Weirick was removed from his job six months after filing the complaint with the Pentagon's inspector general. He was told by Marine officials to surrender his personal firearm and make an appointment with the mental health clinic. Weirick did both, said his lawyer, Jane Siegel, and got "a clean bill of health" from mental health workers.
"He's been publicly demonized and professionally exiled," Thweatt said. "As recently as the last few weeks, rather than working in his capacity as a lawyer for the Marine Corps, he was assigned to help place water bottle stands for the Marine Corps Marathon."
Thweatt and 26 other retired military lawyers wrote to Congress last week, asking for an investigation into how Weirick was treated and how Amos and his staff handled the cases involving the Marines in Afghanistan.
Congressional staffers tell NPR that any decision on an investigation will come after the Pentagon inspector general reports.
Meanwhile, there is still one final case in the Afghanistan incident.
Capt. James Clement was a company officer of the Marines who were charged. He's been recommended for separation from the Marines by a Marine Board of Inquiry, which cited substandard performance of duty.
John Dowd, Clement's attorney, said he's asking for the case to be dismissed, citing unlawful command influence. A final decision rests with the Navy secretary.
"To me it's a tragedy," said Dowd. "It's a terrific overreaction."
In the end, none of those who urinated on the Taliban corpses or videotaped the incident was ever kicked out of the Marine Corps. Some were demoted. Four have left the Marines. Four others are still on active duty.