Col. Jeffrey Chessani
A judge in the U.S. military court system today tossed out the charges against a Marine officer whose soldiers were caught in a bloody firefight with insurgents in 2005 in Haditha, Iraq.
The decision from Col. Steven Folsom came in the case against Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani after defense lawyers from the Thomas More Law Center raised the specter of unlawful command influence by confirming an “investigator” in the case also met dozens of times with commanders deciding the course of the prosecution.
Folsom’s ruling dismissed the charges without prejudice, which means prosecutors could restart the case, but the judge said the Marine Forces Central Command could not be involved if that happens.
The law firm said Folsom “blistered” the prosecution’s case.
“We are grateful for the judge’s ruling today. He truly was the ‘last sentinel’ to guard against unlawful command influence,” said Richard Thompson, president of the law center. “Tragically, our own government eliminated one of its most effective combat commanders. The insurgents are laughing in their caves.”
The defense attorneys noted that during the time period for which Chessani was charged, his superiors had praised his work:
“Leads Marines from front in every operation … Demonstrates moral courage every day … Always seeks advantage over complex, diverse insurgent enemy … A superb leader, who knows his men, knows the enemy, knows his business … Recommended selection for promotion to colonel.”
The charges were brought against Chessani and seven other Marines after U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., publicly accused service members of being murderers.
WND previously reported a military jury of seven officers acquitted Marine 1st Lt. Andrew Grayson of all charges stemming from the same incident.
Charges against five others earlier were dropped, and the only remaining case stemming from the firefight involves Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich.
Folsom’s ruling followed up on his earlier decision, on which WND reported, in which he confirmed there was evidence of unlawful command influence, which is considered the “mortal enemy” of justice within the military judicial structure.
The judge’s conclusion then 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.
The Nov. 19, 2005, firefight resulted in two dozen Iraqi deaths and 14 Marine casualties, including one death. Prosecutors allege the Marines were attacked by a bombing, then 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 cases against Lance Cpls. Stephen Tatum and Justin Sharratt, Capts. Randy Stone and Lucas McConnell and Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz were dropped. Grayson was acquitted and now counts against Chessani have been dropped, leaving only the Wuterich case pending.
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 Murtha before the conclusion of the investigation.
The Thomas More Law Center said the officers involved in the firefight handled its aftermath 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, however, 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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