Jury seated in last ‘Haditha’ Marine trial

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.

See Defend Our Marines for reports by Nat Helms who is attending the trial.

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.

The first day of the court martial of the last ‘Haditha’ Marine

The court martial of SSgt Frank Wuterich began Thursday and may take several weeks to conduct. It will continue Friday and reconvene Monday morning at 8 am PST.

I spoke with Nat Helms this evening. He is attending the trial at Camp Pendleton: (Updated)

Jury selection is today: eleven enlisted and officers and three alternates will go through UCMJ version of the Voir Dire selection. LtCol. David Jones presiding. Panel must have at least five and can have seven or nine members although somewhere in the middle is likely.

Nat will do his best to post a daily diary, his takeaway each day of the trial, by 11 pm Eastern, at Defend Our Marines. He told me there are 11 Marines being considered for the panel, 5 officers and 6 enlisted. All but 1 of the 11 are “grunts” with combat experience.

In related news, the trial judge dismissed four of the (non-manslaughter) charges in the case. SSgt Wuterich still faces the most serious charges, 9 counts of voluntary manslaughter, two counts of assault with a dangerous weapon, and three counts of dereliction of duty. The dropped charges, misconduct for allegedly asking his subordinates to lie and what amounts to recklessly endangering civilians, were dropped due to procedural errors; it will likely not inhibit the prosecution’s ability to use related evidence at trial.

One interesting item in today’s news reports was the lead prosecutor told reporters Wuterich was “responsible” for 19 deaths. That was a strange statement to make. Major Gannon mentioned in the same breath that Wuterich was charged with only 9 counts of voluntary manslaughter, to include the 5 men who dismounted a nearby white car immediately after an IED ripped through the squad’s trail Humvee. Originally, SSgt Wuterich was charged with 24 counts of murder.

Do the math.

Four of those counts were dropped after the convening authority determined those killed in house #4 presented a clear threat. Five counts of voluntary manslaughter are for those killed near the white car. That leaves 15 deaths to be accounted for, but 5 (white car) and 15 equals 20, not 19, the number for which Wuterich is allegedly “responsible.”

Opening arguments, the competing theories, have not been presented. Will the prosecutors concede that the man killed after he bolted from house #1 (while it was being swept by fire) towards house #2 also was a clear threat? If so, it will present the defense with several interesting arguments … Enough said as my investigative duties and career in military law enforcement ended before some who are currently serving were born.

SSgt Wuterich stands in the dock of justice facing the possibility of conviction and a long prison sentence. Yet all charges against six of the eight Marines involved in the so-called Haditha massacre were dismissed. And the seventh Marine was acquitted of all charges during his 2008 court martial.

Another strong ray of hope might be found in the concluding statement made by Article 32 investigating officer Lt Col Paul Ware:

Finally, although I believe the Government will fail to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that SSgt Wuterich committed any offenses other than dereliction of duty, due to the serious nature of the charges, I recommend referral to a general court martial.

Pass the word, stay tuned into Defend Our Marines, and Semper Fi.