Col. Jeffrey Chessani
The Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled unanimously to uphold dismissal of charges against an officer accused of criminal conduct after a political rant over the Iraq war by U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa.
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani is the highest-ranking Marine to be charged with wrongdoing in the so-called “Haditha massacre” in Iraq after Murtha publicly accused the troops of “killing innocent civilians in cold blood.”
A military investigation of the Nov. 19, 2005, Haditha firefight, however, found “no indication” that the Marines had “intentionally targeted, engaged and killed noncombatants.”
As WND reported, the case against Chessani was originally dismissed after Col. Steven Folsom, who presided over the lawsuit, ruled the charges were tainted by “unlawful command influence.” Folsom cited improper closed-door meetings with investigators that gave credence to the defense’s argument that Chessani was made a “political scapegoat” for the highly publicized Haditha incident.
The government, however, persisted in appealing the case against Chessani, who wasn’t present at Haditha but was charged with improperly investigating actions of Marines under his command and covering up details of the firefight.
Late this morning, the three appellate military judges of the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals released their opinion, rejecting the government’s challenge of Chessani’s dismissal.
“We are convinced the Government failed to meet its burden of demonstrating, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the proceedings were untainted by the appearance of UCI (Unlawful Command Influence),” states the judges’ decision. “We are similarly convinced that an objective, disinterested observer, fully informed of all the facts and circumstances, would harbor significant doubt about the fairness of this proceeding.”
The counts against Chessani were triggered following a house-to-house, room-by-room battle his enlisted Marines engaged in after they were ambushed by insurgents.
The firefight resulted in nearly two dozen Iraqi deaths, including 15 civilians caught in the crossfire, and 14 Marine casualties, including one death.
Prosecutors alleged the Marines were attacked by a bombing and then stormed into houses to exact revenge.
Defense lawyers have reported the insurgents deliberately attacked the Marines from hiding places, where they surrounded themselves with civilians to use as shields.
Eventually eight Marines were charged, but cases against Lance Cpls. Stephen Tatum and Justin Sharratt, Capts. Randy Stone and Lucas McConnell and Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz were dropped. First Lt. Andrew Grayson was acquitted, leaving only the Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich case pending and Lt. Col. Chessani’s case in appeals.
The enlisted Marines had been charged with murder and the officers accused of failing to investigate the deaths.
Following Col. Folsom’s initial dismissal of Chessani’s case, Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center, a national public interest law firm that has defended Chessani, reiterated his criticism of the case’s politicized nature.
“This ill-conceived prosecution has resulted in the removal of one of America’s most effective combat commanders in Iraq by the Marine Corps’ own standards,” Thompson said. “Although nothing can undo the harm caused to our nation and to Lt. Col. Chessani and his family, this ruling gives us hope that the military justice system will rise above the politics that fomented this prosecution and allow Lt. Col. Chessani, who devoted more than 20 years to the Marine Corps and to the defense of our nation, to get on with his life.”
Thompson also warned, both then and now, that the government could still press the case further in the courts.
“This decision could be appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) and then even to the U.S. Supreme Court,” said the Thomas Law Center in a statement released today. “The government has yet to announce whether it will pursue another appeal.”