Col. Jeffrey Chessani
With most of the eight Marines charged in the Haditha, Iraq, incident now exonerated, the highest-ranking officer among the accused is considering a lawsuit against Democratic Rep. John Murtha, who fueled the case by declaring the men cold-blooded killers.
In an interview with nationally syndicated radio talk host Michael Savage, the lead attorney for Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani said he and his client will look into suing Murtha and the Time magazine reporter, Tim McGuirk, who first published the accusations by Iraqi insurgents.
But the attorney, Brian Rooney, said nothing will happen immediately because he wants Chessani, described as a devout Christian and the father of six homeschooled children, completely “out of the woods” legally before any action is taken. The government, through Lt. Col. S.M. Sullivan, today filed a notice that it would appeal the case to the next judicial level.
As WND reported, a military judge at Camp Pendleton in California yesterday dismissed charges that Chessani failed to properly investigate the Nov. 19, 2005 incident in which 24 Iraqi men, women and children were killed.
Rooney, an attorney for the Thomas More Law Center who served a tour of duty in Iraq himself, is urging citizens to tell their representatives in Congress and military officials that they want the case to come to an end.
“At some point you have to have somebody in the chain of command, whether it’s civilian or military, saying enough is enough,” said Rooney, who served with Chessani in the second battle of Fallujah.
Rooney told Savage the Haditha case is the largest investigation in the history of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, with 65 agents assigned by the government.
The filing of charges against Chessani was approved by Gen. James Mattis, then commander of the Marine Corps Forces Central Command and commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton. Mattis has been promoted to commander of NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Transformation and commander of U.S. Joint Forces.
“This is the most important case since Vietnam, if not before,” Rooney said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
He noted the New York Times featured the case on the front page when it was being compared by war critics to the infamous My Lai massacre in Vietnam. But now, with evidence the Haditha accusations were a smear, the story has been relegated to the back pages.
The military judge, Col. Steve Folsom, dismissed Chessani’s charges without prejudice, giving permission for the prosecutors to continue trying to build a case that began in December 2006.
Four Marines were charged with murder and another four with not properly investigating the incident.
Defense lawyers contend insurgents deliberately attacked the Marines from hiding places where they surrounded themselves with civilians to use as shields. The defense insisted Chessani promptly reported the events to his superiors and that nobody in the chain of command believed there was any wrongdoing on the part of the Marines.
Libel and defamation
Rooney acknowledged to Savage it’s difficult to sue a sitting congressman, but he believes it can be done.
“If he leaves his realm of speaking from the congressman’s point of view … then he can be sued for libel and defamation,” Rooney said.
The Time magazine story, according to Rooney, was planted by an insurgent propaganda agent. Publishing of the story was soon followed by a May 17, 2006, news conference by Murtha. The congressman announced he had 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 at the time.
Murtha’s assertions, however, conflicted with results from the military’s own investigations. An initial probe by Army Col. G.A. Watt found no indications coalition forces “intentionally targeted, engaged and killed noncombatants.” Later, Army Maj. Gen. Aldon Bargewell found no cover-up.
Nevertheless, the Marine Corps eventually brought charges against Chessani and seven other Marines.
But now the cases against Lance Cpls. Stephen Tatum and Justin Sharratt, Capts. Randy Stone and Lucas McConnell and Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz have been dropped. First Lt. Andrew Grayson has been acquitted, leaving only the case of Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich untested in court and Chessani prosecutors facing the hurdles of the appeal process.
WND previously reported a military jury of seven officers acquitted Grayson of all charges.
The ruling by Col. Folsom yesterday followed a previous decision in which he confirmed evidence of unlawful command influence.
The evidence indicated two generals who controlled Chessani’s case were influenced by Marine lawyer Col. John Ewers, who was allowed to attend at least 25 closed-session meetings in which the case was discussed.
Throwing Marines under the bus
Rooney acknowledged the Haditha case taken a toll on the Marine Corps.
“There’s no doubt it’s affected recruiting,” he told Savage. “How could you have your sons or daughters join the Marine Corps when you’re not sure the government will protect them?”
Rooney was asked by Savage why he thought Murtha, a former Marine himself, accused the officers and enlisted men.
“In my opinion, it’s clear it was done during the election cycle, it was done to bolster himself in the party,” the attorney said. “He was vying for a leadership position, and if he had to throw some Marines under the bus to do so, that was the cost of power for him.”
He hopes soon politicians will weigh in on the case in support of Chessani and the others.
“I would think all politicians, especially politicians that have military records, should say something about this case,” he said.
“In a horrible and very complex environment, when you have an enemy that’s using women and children as shields, you should always give the benefit of the doubt to the Marine or soldier,” said Rooney. “You should never bring him back and put him in front of a court martial.”
Related special offers: