A military jury of seven officers acquitted Marine 1st Lt. Andrew Grayson of all charges stemming from what a law firm has described as a political attack on the U.S. military over a firefight with insurgents in Haditha, Iraq, in 2005.
Grayson immediately came to the defense of another Marine still facing accusations for the incident that left one Marine and 24 Iraqis dead.
He said Lt. Col Jeffrey Chessani was “one of the most steadfast men. … He led by example and he knew the difference between right and wrong,” according to the Thomas More Law Center, a national public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, Mich., whose lawyers are representing Chessani.
Col. Jeffrey Chessani
“The government ordered these Marines to the front lines, they ordered them to attack the insurgents. … Marines, risking their lives, followed those orders without hesitation; their reward – criminal prosecution,” Richard Thompson, president of the law center, said today. “There must be some righteous person in the chain of command that will say ‘enough is enough.'”
Hearings continue in the Chessani case. Earlier this week, Military Judge Col. Steven Folson heard arguments over several defense motions but delayed a decision until June 16. He also delayed the start of the trial until July 21.
Just weeks ago, Folsom concluded there was evidence in the Chessani case of unlawful command influence, which is considered the “mortal enemy” of justice within the military judicial structure.
The judge’s conclusion was based on evidence two generals who controlled Chessani’s case were influenced by Marine lawyer Col. John Ewers, one of the investigators assigned to the case. Ewers was allowed to attend at least 25 closed-session meetings in which Chessani’s case was discussed.
Defense lawyers note that shifted the burden of proof to prosecutors to convince the judge that the facts presented by the defense were untrue, don’t constitute unlawful command influence or would not affect the proceedings.
Although the case awaits rulings, Folsom might have offered a hint during this week’s hearings, asking both sides what they would recommend to remedy the unlawful command influence issue. Robert Muise, a Thomas More Law Center defense attorneys, asked that the case be dismissed.
Grayson’s attorney, Joseph Casas, said the acquittal of his client “sets the tone for the overall whirlwind Haditha has been. It’s been a botched investigation from the get-go.”
“I believe in the end all of the so-called Haditha Marines who still have to face trial will be exonerated,” he said.
The Associated Press reported cheers erupted in the Grayson courtroom when the acquittal was announced.
Grayson was not on the scene of the house-to-house firefight but was accused of telling a sergeant to delete photographs of the dead from a digital camera.
He was acquitted of two counts of making false official statements and other counts, and could have faced as many as 20 years in prison.
The Nov. 19, 2005, firefight also resulted in 14 Marine casualties, including one death. Prosecutors allege the Marines were attacked by a bombing, then Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich and another Marine shot five men at the scene. They alleged Wuterich then ordered his men into nearby houses where more Iraqis were killed in 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.
Eventually eight Marines were charged, but counts against five have been dropped. Those defendants are Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum, Capts. Randy Stone and Lucas McConnell, Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz and Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt.
Wuterich’s and Chessani’s cases remain.
The enlisted Marines had been charged with murder and the officers accused of failing to investigate the deaths.
Critics have described the charges as a vendetta against U.S. Marines following a public condemnation of the troops by U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., before the conclusion of the investigation.
The Thomas More Law Center said the officers involved in the firefight handled its aftermatch according to military protocol.
“Even though Lt. Col. Chessani promptly reported the events of that day to his superiors, including the deaths of 15 noncombatant civilians caught in the battle, nobody in Lt. Col. Chessani’s chain of command believed there was any wrongdoing on behalf of the Marines,” the law firm said.
But months later, a Time magazine story “planted by an insurgent propaganda agent,” caused Pentagon officials to order the investigation, the law firm said.
The article was followed quickly by Murtha’s comments. The congressman held a news conference and announced he’d been told by the highest levels of the Marine Corps there was no firefight and Marines “killed innocent civilians in cold blood.”
“All the information I get, it comes from the commanders, it comes from people who know what they’re talking about,” Murtha told reporters.
Murtha’s statements conflicted with investigative results from the military itself. An initial investigation by Army Col. G.A. Watt found “there are no indications that (Coalition Forces) intentionally targeted, engaged and killed noncombatants.” Later, Army Maj. Gen. Aldon Bargewell found no coverup, the law firm said.
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