Seven Marines are facing charges of murder and dereliction of duty stemming from the deaths of two dozen Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha nearly two years ago.
But Marine investigative officers at Camp Pendleton, Calif., are recommending that some of the charges be reduced. That's raising questions about whether the government's case is unraveling.
Marine prosecutors say Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt is among those who committed murder. They say he raised his 9 mm pistol and executed three Iraqi men on a November 2005 day inside a house.
Now an investigative officer wants the charges against Sharratt dismissed. In a report filed earlier this month, Lt. Col. Paul Ware said he believes Sharratt faced a threat and was justified in shooting the men.
"He acted in an appropriate manner, consistent with his training in a wartime situation," said Gary Meyers, Sharratt's attorney. "We were concerned from the beginning that the press and members reached conclusions on information that had not been reviewed."
Ware pointed out that the men shot by Sharratt were all facing forward, which is inconsistent with an execution. Sharratt said one of the Iraqis pointed an AK-47 at him. Ware said that two AK-47 rifles were recovered from the house.
Ware also said he found the testimony against Sharratt, from both Marines and Iraqis, to be inconclusive and not credible.
Haditha Cases Unraveling?
Sharratt's is not the only Haditha case that appears to be falling apart.
Last month, another investigative officer recommended that one of the Marines implicated, legal officer Capt. Randy Stone, should not face a court martial for failing to investigate the killings. The officer recommended a lesser punishment for Stone.
A final decision on the cases of Sharratt and Stone will be made by a top Marine officer, Lt. Gen. James Mattis.
Gary Solis, a former Marine lawyer and now a law professor specializing in war crimes, said it's too early to say the Haditha cases are unraveling.
"No murder case is easy," said Solis. "This has always been a difficult case going in."
Solis said the difficulties include no bodies to examine, little forensic evidence and conflicting statements.
But Solis said the Marines appear to be aggressively pursuing the cases. More legal action is scheduled for the coming weeks.
One of the officers facing a court martial is the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani.
"I think this is the first case in recent memory where a U.S. officer has been charged with dereliction on the battlefield," Solis said.
Solis said the case against Sharratt was perhaps a weak one. But it's too soon to say that about the others charged with murder: Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum and Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich.
Both men stormed two houses. The dead included women and children.
A Second Incident
Besides the killings in the houses, Wuterich is also being charged with killing five unarmed Iraqi men. They pulled up in a car shortly after a roadside bomb exploded, killing a Marine and setting off the house-to-house search.
During an interview with CBS in March, Wuterich said that the men ran away, and he shot them in the back. He said he thought the men were the "triggermen" for the car bomb, or perhaps spotters. He said that the act of running and disobeying orders to stop was in itself considered a "hostile act."
"They were 100 meters away from that IED [improvised explosive device]," Wuterich told CBS. "Those are the things that went through my mind before I pulled the trigger. That was positive identification."
But one Marine, who was granted immunity, said Wuterich shot the men as they had their hands up.
Wuterich then turned to the houses, he told CBS. "I did not see muzzle flashes coming from the house," Wuterich said.
Although he didn't hear or see any rounds, Wuterich said he identified the house as a threat "because that was the only logical place that the fire could come through, seeing the environment there."
Wuterich's lawyer, Mark Zaid, said his client was told by other Marines that fire was coming from the house. Zaid said that, like Sharratt, his client responded properly to a threat. And he's hopeful that in light of Col. Ware's report, there will be a more balanced view about what happened at Haditha.
"Without a doubt, the way the case is looking is different from what the government has been portraying and what the Iraqis have been portraying," Zaid said.
Wuterich faces a pre-trial hearing next month.