Charges against another U.S. Marine caught up in the political fallout from an ambush in Haditha, Iraq, in 2005 have been reduced, officials have confirmed.
Authorities at Camp Pendleton, Calif., said in a statement that the remaining charges against Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who was accused of leading the campaign that resulted in the deaths of two dozen Iraqis, are “voluntary manslaughter, aggravated assault” and others.
But Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland, the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Central commander, “dismissed the charges of unpremeditated murder, soliciting another to commit an offense and false official statement,” according to a Reuters report.
Eight Marines originally were accused in the case, in which they were assigned to clear suspected terrorists from a series of buildings in Haditha after a Marine convoy was hit by a roadside bomb.
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, who grew up in Rangely, Colo., and graduated from the University of Northern Colorado, is facing a court-martial for the events of that day, even though he was not on the scene. Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum also has been ordered to be court-martialed. The case against Cpl. Andrew Grayson also remained pending.
Two other officers, Capts. Randy Stone and Lucas McConnell, have had their charges dismissed. Charges against Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz also were dismissed, as were charges against Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt.
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani
The prosecution came about after U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., publicly accused the Marines of killing Iraqi civilians “cold blood.”
Chessani, the top officer accused, is being represented by The Thomas More Law Center. His trial tentatively has been scheduled to begin April 28, 2008.
“We have the absurd situation of Lt. Col. Chessani being charged with failing to report and investigate a crime that never occurred,” said Richard Thompson, the president and chief counsel for the Thomas More Law Center. “Every American should be outraged at the way this dedicated Marine and his family are being treated by the nation he so loyally defended.”
Chessani faces criminal charges that he failed to properly report and investigate a possible “law of war” violation for the Nov. 19, 2005, house-to-house battle that involved four Marines from his battalion. If convicted, Chessani faces more than two years in prison, a dishonorable discharge and loss of all retirement benefits.
However, multiple investigations have revealed no wrong-doing by the 20-year Marine officer who served in the Panama Invasion, the Persian Gulf War and three tours in Iraq, the law center said.
“Every patriotic American has a stake in the outcome of this case,” Thompson continued. “A U.S. Army colonel and an Army general conducted two separate investigations, and came to the same conclusion: there was no ‘massacre’ and no ‘cover-up.’
“Yet the government still pursued a multi-million dollar investigation in order to appease an anti-war politician and the ‘blame America first’ media,” he said.
The law center reported the charges against Chessani “were incited by an inflammatory Time magazine headline accusing Marine enlisted men of ‘massacring innocent civilians.’ The story was planted by known terrorist propaganda operatives, and has since been discredited.
“Anti-war Congressman John Murtha, who holds major influence over military appropriations, in an unprecedented action publicly accused Marine officers of a ‘cover-up’ and enlisted men of killing ‘in cold blood’ even before the investigation of the incident was completed,” the law center said.
“Subsequent investigations have specifically found no ‘cover-up’ at any level of command, and have exonerated several of the Marines involved,” the law center said.
The charges stemmed from the actions of four Marines who came under fire from a coordinated al-Qaida-led ambush in Haditha. It was not long after 7 a.m. when an improvised explosive device exploded under one of the four Humvees in a supply convoy, killing one Marine and injuring two others.
Simultaneously the Marines came under gunfire from nearby homes, and the four-man Marine fire team was ordered to clear the houses of insurgents, and the resulting house-to-house firefight left 15 civilians dead, the law center said.
For months after the attack, not a single superior officer suspected a law of war violation, and Chessani was commended on a job well done.
However, when the Time magazine article appeared and Murtha lodged his accusations, the Marines were targeted, the law center said.
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