Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, the leader of a Marine squad that killed 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha, faces a military hearing Thursday at Camp Pendleton. He is charged with 18 counts of unpremeditated murder in the largest criminal case to emerge from the war in Iraq.
On the morning of November 19, 2005, as Sgt. Wuterich's squad approached Haditha, a roadside bomb killed a fellow marine. Wuterich said the dismembered body is a sight he will never forget.
About 100 yards away, Wuterich, who had never been in combat before, saw a taxi with five young men in it. In an interview with CBS's 60 Minutes, Wuterich said the men were ordered out of the car and "as they were coming around, they started to take off. So I shot at them."
Shooting suspected terrorists fleeing a scene is permitted under Marine rules of engagement, but nothing suspicious was in the taxi. One marine, who received immunity, testified that Wuterich shot the men while they held their hands on their heads, a claim defense lawyers dispute.
Next, the platoon commander gave the go-ahead to clear nearby houses, and the squad used what's called the dynamic method, rolling grenades through doorways, going in shooting. Under the rules of engagement, positive identification of a source of hostile fire is required. CBS' Scott Pelly asked Wuterich about that.
"How did you identify that house as a threat?" Pelly asked.
"Because that was the only logical place the fire could come through seeing the environment there," Wuterich said.
But defense lawyer, Mark Zaid, said Wuterich wasn't just guessing, that he was told by others that fire was coming from that house.
"Marines are permitted to rely upon the words of other Marines. That's how the military combat functionality works," Zaid said.
It is still a matter of dispute if the squad was under fire. After clearing the first house, where five people were killed, the squad cleared a second house, thinking the gunmen had fled there.
"We went through that house much the same, prepping rooms with grenades, going in there eliminating the threat, engaging the targets," Wuterich said.
"But there was no threat?" asked Pelly.
"There probably wasn't, now that I look back on it. But there in that time, yes, I believed there was a threat," the marine said.
In that house, four men, along with two women, and four children were killed. The women and children were huddled on a bed.
The good news for Wuterich is that investigative officers have recommended that two squad members not be court martialed. What could be bad news for Wuterich is that the investigative said he had fired first and that the squad member was simply following his lead.
But Attorney Mark Zaid said he is not worried for his client.
"All the men that day acted in furtherance of the rules of engagement they were taught in class and operationally on the ground," he said.
Sgt. Wuterich is the last enlisted man to face murder charges in the case. Three officers still face charges of failing to properly report and investigate the incident.