Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, a Marine officer brought to trial for allegedy failing to investigate alleged war crimes in Iraq, has been recommended by a hearing officer to be court-martialed, according to a law firm representing him.
Chessani was brought up on military charges after Time magazine accused Marines of "massacring" civilians in a firefight in Haditha in Anbar Province. Later, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., publicly accused Marine officers of a "cover-up."
Meanwhile, a report was released today by a Marine prosecutor presiding over the case of another Haditha defendant recommending "in the strongest possible terms" charges be dropped. The report is being hailed by lawyers for all the defendants as a possible turning point.
Officials with the Thomas More Law Center said Col. Christopher Conlin made the recommendation that Chessani face a general court-martial on allegations of "dereliction of duty" and "orders" violations.
"This recommendation deals more with political correctness than criminality," said Richard Thompson, president of the law center. "Col. Chessani is chastised in the report because he had more confidence in his men than in insurgent propaganda. It glorifies paper pushing over fighting and has the unintended consequence of dampening the spirit of the most ferocious fighters on Earth."
The charges stem from a battle in the insurgent-held town of Haditha Nov. 19, 2005. Marines were alleged to have purposely killed Iraqi civilians, and their officers allegedly were involved in a "cover-up" of the incident.
"This fight is about the future of the American fighting man," Thompson said. "If good officers and men like Lt. Col. Chessani can't react to combat situations the way they were trained, if our young soldiers are forced to hesitate in battle because they may be criminally charged by their own government, they will be killed.
"Further, if the higher command doesn't correct the injustice of this flawed recommendation, ultimately there will be no aggressive military left to defend the life of our nation," he said.
He said the allegations are a result of "politically motivated" statements against Chessani and his Marines as well as a "terrorist-inspired" story in Time Magazine.
But Thompson said the law firm would continue the battle for Chessani, who could face a maximum punishment of dismissal, loss of retirement and up to three years in prison.
Thompson noted that in another case – dealing with the same series of allegations – a different investigating officer recommended "in the strongest possible terms" that charges against another defendant be dropped.
Lt. Col. Paul Ware, who presided over the Article 32 hearing for Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, wrote in a report made public today that the allegations were "unsupported" and "incredible."
Lawyers for Haditha defendants say Ware's report could be a turning point in the case. The officer suggested some of the dead Iraqis were insurgents, and he pointed out accounts by Iraqi witnesses seemed inconsistent with forensic evidence.
The evidence, Ware wrote, shows "each was shot facing forward, from a distance, and with a 9 mm pistol, which I find inconsistent with an execution or persons reacting to an execution."
Relatives of the dead Iraqis would not allow the U.S. military to exume the bodies to conduct autopsies, Ware wrote, pointing out the Iraqis had a motive to lie because families of civilians killed by U.S. forces often received $2,500.
"The government's version may encourage others to bear false witness against Marines as a tactic to erode public support of the Marine Corps and its mission in Iraq," Ware said. "Even more dangerous is the potential that a Marine may hesitate at the critical moment when facing the enemy."
Eight Marines originally were accused in connection with the battle. Charges filed against Capt. Randy Stone have already been dismissed. Prosecutors said the government did not meet the burden of probable cause in his case.
Cases still are pending against Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich; Sgt. Sanick P Dela Cruz; Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum; 1st Lt. Andrew Grayson and Capt. Lucas McConnell.
'Clear factual errors'
The Thomas More Law Center said Chessani's case now will be advanced to an officer of higher rank, who will make a final decision, which is not bound by the recommendation from Conlin.
The legal team said they have five days to write a rebuttal, and they will "refute and rebut" the "clear factual errors and legal conclusions" in the recommendation.
"We are disappointed by this recommendation, but not deterred," said Brian Rooney, one of the attorneys helping with the case. "I always told Marines in Iraq that in the final analysis it is better to be judged by 12 than carried by six. If we are forced to go to a general court-martial, Lt. Col. Chessani will be judged by a true jury of his peers – many will be combat veterans themselves. We are very comfortable with that scenario."
Chessani did, in fact, brief his higher-ups on the pitched battle that pitted U.S. Marines against terrorists, Maj. Gen. Richard Huck testified during the hearing.
On the day of the firefight, Rooney said, Marines came under an attack that included both gunfire and explosives. One Marine in a Humvee was killed and two more were injured, and the resulting house-to-house battle between the outnumbered 4-man Marine "fire team" and the insurgents resulted in 24 Iraqi deaths, including 15 civilians.
Testimony also showed terrorists in strongholds such as Haditha had set up bases in a school, a mosque, and a hospital to be used to attack U.S. forces, and documentation showed that one terrorist suspected in the Haditha battle was tracked by an aerial drone to another house, from which he emerged a short time later holding a baby.
The tragedy, Rooney said, is that Chessani has been sidelined from his work in the war against terror by the allegations, at a time when his leadership could be used well in the battle.
"The terrorists are laughing in their caves," Rooney said. "The enemy knows our rules of engagement as well as we do. They know how to use propaganda better than we do. The whole trial is the result of propaganda."
Chessani is described by fellow officers as a focused, hands-on commander who followed the Law of War and was sympathetic to the plight of innocent Iraqis, the Law Center said. He is a committed Christian with a wife and five children, and has served his nation honorably for more than 19 years with tours of duty in Panama, the first Persian Gulf War and three tours in Iraq.
Thomas More Law Center officials are still raising funds for their battles on Chessani's behalf. They say the reasonable costs of the case – to date – have reached about $325,000 and almost $200,000 has been donated for the cause. A big bump in support came when radio talk-show host Michael Savage added his voice to those concerned about justice.
On his website, he's linked a Charlotte Conservative News report detailing how the Time article was based on information from known insurgents.
Writer Michael Kraft said the Time sources "were known insurgent propagandists and it was [that report] that created the Haditha massacre hoax."
Rooney said not only had Savage personally contributed money but encouraged his audience to do so, adding significantly to the resources available.
Savage told his listening audience he would devote whatever time and resources are necessary to clearing Chessani and then pursuing those who have "persecuted" him. He pledged to hold a fund-raiser for the Chessani family once he is cleared.
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