Hearing Set for Marine in Haditha Deaths

Marine Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani faces a military hearing on charges that he failed to report the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians near the town of Haditha. U.S. Marines allegedly killed the Iraqis, including children, following a roadside bomb attack on a Marine convoy in November 2005. Chessani is the highest-ranking Marine swept up by the Haditha probe.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Today at Camp Pendleton here in California, a major criminal case involving civilian deaths in Iraq is back in a military court. It's known as the Haditha case, named for the town where Marines killed a group of Iraqi civilians, including children.

This morning Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Chessani answers charges that he failed to report those killings. As NPR's John McChesney reports, Chessani is the highest ranking Marine swept up by the Haditha probe.

JOHN MCCHESNEY: On November 19, 2005, a Marine patrol approaching the town of Haditha was attacked by a roadside bomb. A popular Marine was killed. Two more were wounded. Soon, 24 Iraqi civilians would be dead in the town, killed by a Marine patrol the government says was out of control.

Defense lawyers say the deaths were collateral damage from legitimate acts of war. Colonel Chessani was the battalion commander in charge of Kilo Company, the outfit directly involved in the killings. Brian Rooney, a former Marine, is representing Chessani.

Mr. BRIAN ROONEY (Attorney, Thomas More Law Center): There's a twofold reason why the charges came. One is to say that the Marine Corps is doing something to get the politicians and media off their back and say that, you know, there is no cover-up. And the second is a legitimate reason of seeing whether or not there is something there or not.

MCCHESNEY: Something there would mean the Marines had broken the law of war. But Rooney says Colonel Chessani can't be blamed for that. Rooney points out that an investigation by Army Major General Eldon Bargewell found that there was no illegal cover-up by the Marine chain of command.

Mr. ROONEY: The not properly reporting it up the chain of command has no merit to it whatsoever. He reported everything he knew up to chain of command. And the other dereliction of duty of failing to investigate, well, he did investigate. He went down to the scene of the battle scene that same night and the next morning. He didn't go into the homes, but he went to where the battle took place.

MCCHESNEY: The death of 24 Iraqis did not cause Colonel Chessani to initiate an investigation. In the hearing prior to Chessani's the investigative officer repeatedly asked the question, how many civilian deaths would trigger a probe? Gary Solis was a Marine judge advocate for 18 years and now teaches law at Georgetown University.

Professor GARY SOLIS (Law, Georgetown University) Had I been a battalion commander and I heard that two noncombatants were killed, I would not have batted an eye. But if I heard 24, I think I would have wanted to know more about it.

MCCHESNEY: Chessani's defense lawyers will point out that no one above him in the chain of command wanted to know more about what happened that day and that he should not be singled out.

The Bargewell report found that all levels of Marine command seemed determined to ignore serious levels of misconduct. A recent Pentagon survey found that most Marines would not report that a fellow Marine had killed an innocent civilian.

Former Marine prosecutor Gary Solis says that's a problem.

Prof. SOLIS: Something wrong in the Marine Corps, in the Army, and I think perhaps in our nation as a whole. A nation that's prepared to accept torture in certain circumstances, a nation that says whatever it takes, which opens the door to all kinds of misconduct.

MCCHESNEY: The hearing is expected to run until late next week.

John McChesney, NPR News.

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