Charges Expected Against Marines in Haditha Case

Criminal charges may be announced Thursday at California's Camp Pendleton for as many as eight Marines in the shooting deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha last year, including 11 women and children.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Today at California's Camp Pendleton, at least four Marines are expected to face charges for killings in Iraq. This involves an incident last year that left 24 Iraqis dead, including 11 women and children. The Haditha incident resulted in the highest civilian death toll of any case of alleged wrongdoing by U.S. troops.

And NPR's Tom Bowman has learned that in addition to the four we have known about, another four officers are expected to be implicated.

TOM BOWMAN: The killings occurred on November 19, 2005. A roadside bomb ripped into a Humvee, killing a Marine from El Paso, Texas. Members of his squad opened fire - the Marines say in self-defense. Two-dozen civilians were found dead. Part of the investigation has looked at whether officers subsequently failed to investigate the incident. And military sources say that today, four Marine officers - a lieutenant colonel, two captains and a lieutenant - will face charges that include dereliction of duty and obstruction of justice.

One is Captain Lucas McConnell. He was a company commander overseeing the Marines who allegedly took part in the attack. McConnell was not on the scene that day at Haditha, and his lawyer, Kevin McDermott, wonders why he will face dereliction charges.

Mr. KEVIN MCDERMOTT (Captain McConnell's Attorney): I wish I knew that answer, and haven't seen the actual charges themselves. So I don't know what it is what he was derelict in doing.

BOWMAN: But sources familiar with the investigation says the issue comes down to what McConnell and other officers knew or should have known. McDermott says his client is a respected officer who responded appropriately. He says McConnell was briefed by the Marines who were in Haditha that day.

Mr. MCDERMOTT: The gist of what he received was that there was small arms fire taken, the squad aggressively responded to it. Civilians got in the way, and there were civilians killed.

BOWMAN: McDermott says McConnell followed protocol in reporting the incident.

Mr. MCDERMOTT: In fact, it was something that was presented to higher officers within a day or two after it occurred.

BOWMAN: Despite what McDermott says about his client's account, the Marines' initial report of what happened that November day was that 15 civilians and one Marine were killed by a roadside bomb. Several months later, Time magazine reported that the civilians were, in fact, killed by a small arms fire. Only then did the Marines launch an investigation.

Gary Solis, a law professor and retired Marine officer, says any mishandling of the situation can only land in the laps of officers.

Professor GARY SOLIS (Professor of Law; Retired Marine Officer): I think that that's the reason why these are under a microscope.

BOWMAN: Criminal charges or written reprimands for their alleged failures amounts to a career killer for officers, says Solis.

Prof. SOLIS: It tells me that the Marine Corps takes very seriously the role that officers are supposed to play in the control of their subordinates. That is, if they allow criminality to occur and they know of it or should know of it, then they are going to have to pay the price.

BOWMAN: Investigators also have looked at payments made by the Marines to the families of the victims one month after the Haditha killings. The Marines paid $2,500 for each family member killed. That's standard procedure for accidental deaths. What is unusual here is that these payments, known as solatia payments, were made a time when the Marines were officially saying the Haditha civilians were killed by an insurgent's roadside bomb. Again, Gary Solis.

Prof. SOLIS: These solatia payments were no more than hush money. If we paid the maximum amount for the death of your relative, then you'll say no more. And obviously, that's not what solatia payments are supposed to be for.

BOWMAN: The question of whether Marine officers should be held accountable also is a prime concern to the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee. They want all investigative files in preparation for possible hearings.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, the Pentagon.

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