Haditha Witness Describes Finding Bodies

In southern California, hearings continue at Camp Pendleton into the November 2005 killings of 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha. A witness describes finding children's bodies and questioning why a major investigation into the deaths didn't occur.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in Southern California hearings continue at Camp Pendleton into the November 2005 killings of 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha. The focus there is on Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Chessani. He was battalion commander for the Marines who killed the Iraqis. Yesterday on the witness stand even one of Chessani's biggest supporters wondered why the civilian deaths didn't prompt a major investigation.

NPR's John McChesney reports.

JOHN MCCHESNEY: Sergeant Major Edward Sax called Lieutenant Colonel Chessani the strongest moral leader he'd ever served with in his life and insisted that Chessani had done nothing wrong. But Sax said that after he had seen a "60 Minutes" interview with the Marine squad leader who had led a deadly sweep through Haditha he was shocked and felt his battalion should have asked hard questions much earlier.

That squad is charged with killing 24 men, women and children with grenades and machine guns. Chessani is charged with not properly investigating the killings, but his lawyer insists that he did the necessary investigation by visiting the town where the killings occurred. Attorney Brian Rooney:

Mr. BRIAN ROONEY (Attorney, Thomas More Law Center): Colonel Chessani actually went to the battlefield that night. The next morning, he talked to his Marines, he talked to his executive officer, he talked to his operations officer, he talked to his Marines that were in charge of the enlisted guys that went into the houses.

MCCHESNEY: But testimony made it clear that Chessani never talked with the squad members who cleared the houses and never toured the three houses where the civilians were killed. The most dramatic testimony of the day was provided by First Lieutenant Max Frank, who was assigned to remove the dead. Frank testified under immunity. In a matter-of-fact tone he said that in one room he found six children and two women dead on a bed. Pressed by the prosecution, Frank said he had seen no reason to believe that anything had been done on purpose by his Marines and that no law of war violation had occurred. Again, lawyer Brian Rooney.

Mr. ROONEY: I don't believe that Lieutenant Frank said anything that necessarily hurts Colonel Chessani. He testified that the bodies, in his estimation, lay where they fell. What they expected to happen that day, what they were told happened that day was in accordance with how he saw it.

MCCHESNEY: Frank said he and his Marines objected to being ordered to transport the bodies. He said a lot of Marines were really disturbed by it and didn't want to touch the victims. When he delivered the remains to the town morgue, a hospital worker vomited when he saw the children's corpses. He also said that his company commander told him they weren't going to apologize for what happened, but instead would say: It's unfortunate, but this is what happens when insurgents use civilians for shields.

Chessani's lawyer, Brian Rooney, works for the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The center is a conservative Christian institution and has taken on Chessani's case pro bono. Rooney says the Marines are devouring their own in this case and the terrorists are laughing in their caves.

Mr. ROONEY: One of the reasons we took this case is because we believe that it will lead to Marines hesitating on the battlefield because they won't have confidence in their chain of command, they won't have confidence that they'll be looked after if these allegations come up.

MCCHESNEY: Colonel Chessani's hearing is expected to last another week.

John McChesney, NPR News, Carlsbad, California.

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