Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
Col. Jeffrey Chessani
Four years after the so-called “Haditha Massacre,” cited by U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., to publicly accuse U.S. Marines of being cold-blooded killers, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani faces a board of inquiry tomorrow, hoping to clear his name yet again of alleged wrongdoing.
As WND reported, Chessani was the highest-ranking officer charged in the Haditha incident, when insurgents attacked U.S. Marines in Iraq while using civilians as shields. A series of investigations found nothing wrong until Murtha publicly accused the Marines of murdering Iraqis.
Government prosecutors charging Chessani with criminal wrongdoing lost at every stage. The case was thrown out of military court, and an appellate court affirmed the decision.
But in this final trial, Chessani faces a board of inquiry in a military courtroom at the Marine base at Camp Pendleton, Calif., that doesn’t require the same standards of evidence and conviction as a criminal court. If found guilty of misconduct, Chessani could be compelled to retire from service at a lesser rank.
Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center, which forms part of Chessani’s defense team, has consistently maintained Chessani’s innocence.
“I’m outraged at the obvious double standard the government used as it gave Army Maj. Nidal Hasan every benefit of the doubt because of political correctness. Yet, they had no problem persecuting this loyal Marine officer because he refused to throw his men under the bus to appease an anti-war politician and the Iraqi government,” Thompson said in a statement. “Any finding of misconduct handed down by the board of inquiry would be a miscarriage of justice because Lt. Col. Chessani did nothing wrong.”
The foundation for the case against Chessani 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 the battle, nine insurgents and 15 civilians were killed.
The dispute was reignited when Time magazine published an article months later charging the Marines with committing a massacre.
A military investigation of the Haditha firefight found “no indication” that the Marines had “intentionally targeted, engaged and killed noncombatants.”
The government, however, 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.
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. 1st Lt. Andrew Grayson was acquitted, leaving only the Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich case pending and Lt. Col. Chessani’s case unresolved.
San Diego’s North County Times reports Wuterich is no longer charged with murder but still faces nine counts of manslaughter, and the Marine’s attorneys expect to be back in court early next year.
For Chessani, the board he faces consists of a one-star general and two colonels who were selected by the convening authority, Marine Lt. Gen. George Flynn.
According to the Law Center, because a board of inquiry is an administrative hearing, the normal rules of evidence do not apply. The board can consider material without the benefit of a cross-examination, and Chessani’s legal team cannot subpoena witnesses – it can only request them. Further, the Law Center reports, the government need only prove misconduct by a preponderance of the evidence, rather than beyond a reasonable doubt as required in a criminal proceeding.
If the board finds no misconduct, the case will finally be closed. If, however, the board does find misconduct, it will make a recommendation to the secretary of the Navy to determine at what rank Chessani will retire.
One of Chessani’s attorneys, Robert Muise, said the Marine officer and father of seven expects to be cleared.
“He remains unflappable,” Muise told the Times. “He’s been doing terrific since the burden of a criminal prosecution that was hanging over his head was lifted. He anticipates being cleared and moving on with his intention to retire.”