The North County Times reported on Friday’s progress in the court-martial of the last U.S. Marine to stand trial in connection with the November 19, 2005 civilian deaths in Haditha, Iraq:
An eight-member jury was seated at Camp Pendleton on Friday to decide the fate of a staff sergeant charged with war crimes in the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians during the height of the conflict.
The jury of four officers and four enlisted men will hear opening statements on Monday in the trial of 31-year-old Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich.
Wuterich is accused of being responsible for 19 of the 24 Iraqi deaths that came after his Kilo Company squad from the base’s 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, searched for the people responsible for a roadside bombing that killed one Marine and injured two others on Nov. 19, 2005, in the city of Haditha.
Wuterich has pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter, assault and dereliction of duty for failing to follow the rules of engagement stemming from the more than 6-year-old incident. He faces a prison sentence of up to 150 years if convicted of all the charges.
Controversy surrounding the prosecution and its unpopularity within the ranks of the Marine Corps was evident at the close of Friday’s proceedings when the lead prosecutor, Maj. Nicholas Gannon, told the military judge that all his witnesses were reluctant to aid the government.
“I can’t think of a single witness that I would say is desirable of being helpful to the United States,” Gannon said.
Attorneys in military cases are allowed to request the removal of potential jurors — called “panelists” in military law — for cause or simply because they don’t like what the panel candidates had to say. The Colonel, deemed too close to the convening authority, a Master Gunnery Sergeant who provoked somebody’s ire, and a Gunnery Sergeant who mentioned Hiroshima and Haditha in the same breath were stricken from the roles after the prosecutors and defense attorneys jousted over their continued presence.
During the voir dire proceeding, almost all of the Marines questioned by Sullivan and Faraj stumbled through explanations of what the Rules of Engagement said in November 2005, offering vague impressions of how they were changed after former Marine Commandant General Michael W. Hagee visited Iraq in 2006 following the Haditha fiasco. The potential panelists had an equally tough time explaining when and why escalation of force can be implemented, and what to do when apparent non-combatants find themselves on the firing line. Each of those questions represent fundamental building blocks the panelists must consider when deciding the guilt or innocence of Wuterich, a rookie squad leader who commanded the Marines that counter-attacked their ambushers.