Col. Jeffrey Chessani
A military appeals court has thrown another roadblock in front of government prosecutors trying to convict a Marine officer – whose leadership in Iraq has been praised repeatedly by his superiors – on charges stemming from a firefight with insurgents in Haditha.
The Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals last night denied without comment the government’s motion to reconsider the case against Lt. Col. Jeffery Chessani, according to a statement from the Thomas More Law Center.
The organization has been defending Chessani against charges prompted by the public statements from Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who accused Marines of being cold-blooded killers in a statement to the press about the 2005 firefight in which insurgents reportedly hid behind civilians and attacked the Marines.
Eight Marines ultimately were charged, but in every case that has been resolved to date there have been no convictions.
Earlier, a three-judge panel of the NMCCA unanimously endorsed a decision by Col. Steven A. Folsom that dismissed counts against Chessani on the grounds of unlawful command influence. Chessani is the senior-most officer charged criminally for the so-called “Haditha massacre.”
“This case has turned into a government vendetta against a patriotic marine combat officer who loyally served his nation for over 20 years,” said Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center.
“We must also remember the sacrifices made by his wife and children while he left them to defend us during three tours of duty in Iraq, and during the First Persian Gulf War, and in the Panama Canal,” he said.
“The lengths to which our own government will go to persecute one of its most loyal officers are outrageous. Every war needs a scapegoat, and it seems the government is intent on making Lt. Col. Chessani that very thing. The Thomas More Law Center won’t let them,” he said.
The foundation for the case was the fierce house-to-house, room-by-room combat action taken by four of his Marines after being ambushed by insurgents in Haditha, Iraq, on Nov. 19, 2005. In that battle, nine insurgents and 15 civilians were killed.
Chessani was the battalion commander of the four Marines involved in the action. Every officer in his chain of command, including his reviewing general, approved and commended him for his actions until the publication of a Time magazine article months later charging the Marines with committing a massacre. The claims have since been proven untrue, the law center said.
In dismissing the charges against Chessani, Folsom described “unlawful command influence” as the “the mortal enemy of military justice.”
The decision was affirmed by the three-judge panel and remains standing following the decision by the full court not to revisit the issues.
The law center said the government now has 60 days to appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and it then could take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A military investigation of the Haditha firefight found “no indication” that the Marines had “intentionally targeted, engaged and killed noncombatants.”
As WND reported, the case against Chessani was originally dismissed when Folsom ruled the charges were tainted because of 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 had accused Chessani, who wasn’t present at Haditha, of improperly investigating actions of Marines under his command and covering up details of the firefight.
Defense lawyers have reported the insurgents deliberately attacked the Marines from hiding places, where they surrounded themselves with civilians to use as shields. They introduced evidence that Chessani’s performance repeatedly had been praised by his commanding officers.
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 were charged with murder and the officers accused of failing to investigate the deaths.
The case developed only after Murtha publicly accused troops of “killing innocent civilians in cold blood.”
Radio talk show host Michael Savage has supported Chessani and the Thomas More Law Center’s work on the case.