MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Haditha used to be just another small town on the map of Iraq. Now, Haditha is linked to a major criminal case involving U.S. Marines who've been charged with killing 24 Iraqi civilians. That case opened today at Camp Pendleton in Southern California with a hearing for Marine Captain Randy Stone. He didn't fire any of the fatal shots at Haditha but he is charged with failing to investigate the killings.
NPR's John McChesney joins us now from Camp Pendleton. And John, these Haditha killings occurred on November 19, 2005. Could you begin by reminding us what happened there?
JOHN McCHESNEY: One of the things I think we should say at the outset that this is clearly the biggest criminal proceeding that the military has had since the Iraq War began.
On that day, there was a four Humvee patrol rolling into the town of Haditha and an IED went off and killed a very popular lance corporal and injured two other soldiers. Within a couple of minutes, five men were ordered out of a taxi and shot down as they ran away. Then, a Marine squad stormed into three houses in the village and killed another 19 people. Three enlisted men have been charged with unpremeditated murder, that's important because it won't be capital. One of them, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, is charged with 18 counts of murder. He was the squad leader that went into those houses.
NORRIS: Now, today's hearing focused on Captain Randy Stone. Who is he and how does he fit into this case?
McCHESNEY: He was the battalion legal officer, the JAG, as they call him in the military. And he was charged with - he's charged with failing to report and investigate this incident. He may be the least important figure amongst the four officers that are charged with the same thing - that is not investigating and not reporting.
Stone's lawyer, Charles Gittins, says that he's the lowest-ranking officer and he's been picked on. He's been scapegoated by the Marine Corps. He says everyone up the Marine chain of command knew about this. And they saw no reason to investigate the incident. And some legal experts will tell you they don't want to exonerate Stone that he's still may be responsible for his own actions and not taking it. By the way, he instructs the troops in that battalion on the rules of engagement, and supposedly ran classes on it.
NORRIS: John, what have we heard from the Marines who've been charged in the case?
McCHESNEY: Well, there was a fairly famous interview with Staff Sergeant Wuterich on "60 Minutes." But today, at the court, we've heard from First Lieutenant William Kallop. Now he was the platoon commander that day. He wasn't there when the IED went off. But he was the first officer to arrive on the site and he testified under immunity today. He's the one who ordered Sergeant Wuterich to clear those houses. And he went in there later and he described 15, 10 to 15 bodies in the living room of one house - no insurgents, women and children. And said he was shocked - said they've heard AK fire before entering the houses, but - that's AK-47 machine gun fire. But he acknowledged that could have come from other guns, from the Iraqi soldiers that's with them.
He said Sergeant Wuterich told him he's heard an AK-47 bolt being withdrawn and that's why he rolled a grenade into that room.
NORRIS: John, can you tell us, in just a few seconds here, what happens next?
McCHESNEY: Well, we're going to - this thing is going to go on for probably the better part of the summer. You have an Article 32 hearing, sort of, a preliminary investigation for all of these men. And then court martials, after that, if the commanding general here decides that any of these men should be court martialed.
NORRIS: Thank you, John.
McCHESNEY: Thank you.
NORRIS: That was NPR's John McChesney, reporting from Camp Pendleton in Southern California.
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