Five Marines Expected to Face Charges in Killings

A Marine investigation into the killing of 24 Iraqis in the town of Haditha is almost done. Charges are expected against five Marines. Prosecutors are still considering whether the shootings amount to negligent homicide or murder.

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A Marine investigation into the killing of 24 Iraqis in the town of Haditha last fall is almost complete. NPR has learned that charges are expected against five Marines. Prosecutors are still considering whether the shootings amount to negligent homicide or murder.

NPR's Tom Bowman has more.

TOM BOWMAN: The charges will center on a squad of Marines who killed the Iraqis - including 11 women and children - in a town northwest of Baghdad last November. The Haditha death toll is the highest among several investigations involving American troops. Among those facing charges is the squad leader, Sergeant Frank Wuterich, two corporals, Hector Salinas and Sanique Dela Cruz(ph), two lance corporals, Stephen Tatum and Justin Sharratt. Gary Myers is a lawyer representing Sharratt.

Mr. GARY MYERS (Attorney): He's a good young man, a decent kid who joined the Marine Corps to serve his country, and I believe has done so honorably.

BOWMAN: But investigators tell a different story. The squad was in four Humvees last November 19th, and heading past several houses in Anbar Province. Suddenly, a roadside bomb ripped into the last Humvee, killing Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas - a Marine from El Paso, Texas. The Marines spilled out of their Humvees, set up a defensive perimeter. They said shots were coming from the houses, and in the midst of the confusion, a taxi pulled up with five military-age males. The Marines ordered them out of the taxi. Investigators say the Iraqis were unarmed. All were killed.

Wuterich's lawyer, Mark Zaid, says the Iraqis didn't obey orders to get on the ground. They started to run. That alone is considered hostile intent under U.S. rules of engagement. Zaid says the Marines didn't know whether the Iraqis were armed or not. But investigators have photographs taken soon after the incident, including some taken by a Navy bomb squad. The photos show all five bodies right next to the cab - no evidence any of them ran.

Attorney Mark Zaid.

Mr. MARK ZAID (Attorney): I've heard so many rumors out of the DOD. I have to tend not to believe anything until I see the physical evidence.

BOWMAN: Zaid says his client, Sergeant Wuterich, is also an honorable Marine who was promoted after the Haditha incident, but before the investigation started.

Mr. ZAID: He is the type of guy you would want dating your daughter.

BOWMAN: Gary Myers, the lawyer for Lance Corporal Sharratt, says his client was not near the taxi. And Myers says what occurred there should be separated from what happened when the Marines cleared four nearby houses.

Mr. MYERS: The taxicab issue is the most problematic in the sense that there may have been some conduct there that is not easily explained.

BOWMAN: The Marines have told their lawyers they were taking fire from the houses, but investigators are not so sure. Pentagon sources tell NPR that only one AK-47 assault rifle was found. In one of the houses, there were only women and children. But Myers says his client followed the rules of engagement - that detailed set of step-by-step regulations that tells a Marine when he's authorized to use deadly force. And Myers challenges the comment in May from Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania, who said that Marines at Haditha killed civilians in cold blood.

Mr. MYERS: My view of all of this is that John Murtha received information from the Marines Corps that this is cold-blooded murder because the Marine Corps does not want to have its policies and rules of engagement to be the focus. But they must be the focus.

BOWMAN: And Myers also dismisses one possible charge by Marine prosecutors: negligent homicide.

Mr. MYERS: It suggests death by way of a form of recklessness or gross negligence. And to impose that standard in a combat environment is absurd.

BOWMAN: Now Marine prosecutors are weighing what charges they can prove. Premeditated murder may be too severe a charge, and they will consider that Marines were under fire, or believed they were under fire.

Lieutenant Colonel Sean Gibson is a spokesman at Camp Pendleton, California.

Lieutenant Colonel SEAN GIBSON (Marine Spokesman): The investigation is ongoing. No decisions have been made at this point.

BOWMAN: Pentagon sources say the Marines are struggling to determine whether any officers should face charges. Investigators say the officers, at the very least, should have asked more questions.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, the Pentagon.

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