Watch CBSN Live

Officer: Drop Murder Charge Against Marine

An investigating officer has recommended that the Marine at the center of the biggest prosecution of U.S. troops in the Iraq war should not stand trial on murder charges, a defense attorney said Thursday.

Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 27, of Meriden, Conn., is charged with the unpremeditated murder of 17 Iraqis in Haditha in 2005. The former squad leader allegedly directed his Marines in an assault that left 24 men, women and children dead.

Lt. Col. Paul Ware recommended that Wuterich should be tried for the lesser offense of negligent homicide in the deaths of five children and two women, said Neal Puckett, Wuterich's attorney.

Ware reviewed evidence against Wuterich in a preliminary hearing known as an Article 32. His recommendation is nonbinding, and the final decision about whether Wuterich should stand trial rests with Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the commanding general overseeing the case.

If Mattis accepts the recommendation for Wuterich and a similar one for one of his corporals, which appears likely based on past practice, no one will face murder charges in the biggest case involving civilian deaths in Iraq.

"We're both very pleased and also not surprised, given how the other cases have gone," Puckett said. "There has never been any inkling that any of these Marines lost control or went on a rampage."

In an interview earlier this year, Wuterich told 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley that he's not a murderer.

"Everyone visualizes me as a monster -- a baby killer, cold-blooded, that sort of thing. And, it's, you know, that's not accurate," he said.

Wuterich said he does not believe 24 dead civilians equates to a massacre.

"No, absolutely not ... A massacre in my mind, by definition, is a large group of people being executed, being killed for absolutely no reason and that's absolutely not what happened here," he said.

Read the entire interview here.
Ware also recommended dropping charges of making a false official statement and telling a squadmate to do the same, Puckett said.

If tried and convicted of murder, Wuterich would face a maximum sentence of life in prison. Puckett said negligent homicide carries a maximum sentence of three years for each count.

A Marine Corps spokesman, Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, declined to comment.

Of four enlisted Marines initially accused in the case, charges have been dropped against Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz and Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt. Ware has also recommended charges be dismissed against the third alleged shooter, Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum.

Charges also have been dropped against two of four officers accused of dereliction of duty for failing to investigate the incident. Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the highest-ranking of the officers, has been recommended for a court-martial, but Mattis has made no final decision. Another officer, 1st Lt. Andrew A. Grayson, is scheduled for a pretrial hearing.

The killings occurred Nov. 19, 2005, after a roadside bomb hit a Marine convoy, killing the driver of a Humvee and wounding two other Marines. Wuterich and Dela Cruz allegedly shot five men by a car at the scene, then Wuterich ordered his men into several houses, where they cleared rooms with grenades and gunfire killing unarmed civilians in the process.

Haditha is in Anbar province, the heart of the Sunni resistance, where, among the residents, anti-American passions run high. In the months before Wuterich's unit arrived, other Marines were suffering some of the heaviest causalities in all of Iraq, including the bombing of an armored vehicle that killed 14 Marines. Days before that, six Marines in Haditha were ambushed, tortured and killed, Pelley reported.

As Wuterich's battalion moved in, it discovered the dilemma that defines Iraq. In Haditha, the population is generally hostile to Americans, but only some are armed fighters. The fighters blend in. You can't pick them out unless they're shooting at you.

Wuterich told Pelley that he ordered his men to throw a grenade into the houses out of necessity.

"At that point, you can't hesitate to make a decision," he said. "Hesitation equals being killed, either yourself or your men."

"But when you roll a grenade in a room through the crack in the door, that's not positive identification, that's taking a chance on anything that could be behind that door," Pelley pressed.

"Well that's what we do. That's how our training goes," Wuterich said.

At his preliminary hearing, Wuterich said he regretted the loss of civilian life in Haditha, but said he believed he was coming under fire from the homes and so was operating within military combat rules when he ordered his men to assault the buildings.

"Based on the information I had at the time, based on the situation, I made the best decisions I could have at that time," Wuterich said at the hearing. "Engaging was the only choice."

Wuterich also said he will "always mourn the unfortunate deaths of the innocent Iraqis who were killed during our response to that attack."

Dela Cruz, one of Wuterich's former squad mates, testified against him at the hearing, saying that Wuterich shot the men by the car even though their hands were in the air and they were not running. Dela Cruz's charges had been dropped and he had been given immunity to testify.

Wuterich argued the men were fleeing the scene of the bomb, an activity suspicious enough at the time to legitimize killing them.

Though prosecutors have yet to score any convictions, three high-ranking Marines have been censured for failing to investigate the killings. A letter of censure is the military's most severe administrative punishment.

In other developments:

  • The United States must deliver weapons to Iraq more quickly, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday after an announcement that the Iraqis have ordered $100 million in military equipment from China. Gates agreed that there are concerns that it is harder for the U.S. military in Iraq to track weapons purchased from countries other than America. In many cases, the Iraqis cannot account for weapons, which often end up in the hands of insurgents.
  • Nearly two dozen previously unknown Iraqi insurgent groups announced a new coalition to fight foreign occupation but it also set conditions for talks with the U.S. in a statement on a Web site affiliated with the country's deposed Baath party.
  • The mayor of Iskandiriyah and a member of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party was killed, along with four of his guards in a roadside bomb attack Thursday, according to police. Abbas Hassan Hamza was killed as he headed to work in the religiously mixed town, about 30 miles south of Baghdad, said the police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons. Hamza's convoy was targeted by the blast, which also injured a fifth guard.
  • Four Iraqi civilians were killed and eight others were wounded Thursday after a parked car bomb exploded near a line of cars waiting to fill their tanks at a gas station, police said. The explosive device was lodged in an empty car, parked about 110 yards from the station in Baghdad's southeastern area of Zafaraniyah. Several vehicles were damaged in the blast, according to the police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
  • A daring Wednesday ambush left Poland's ambassador to Iraq pinned inside a burning vehicle before being pulled to safety and airlifted in a rescue mission by the embattled security firm Blackwater USA. At least three people were killed, including a Polish bodyguard. Despite Blackwater's role in rescuing the ambassador, CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports the drama was barely over when Iraq's leader announced that as far as he was concerned, Blackwater's days are numbered.
  • An unnamed former Blackwater contractor who might, under normal circumstances, be on trial in Baghdad for the shooting death of an Iraqi vice presidential body guard, is instead staying under the radar in Washington state. Federal officials barely acknowledge his existence, let alone release his name or discuss the status of the investigation. Pentagon officials say the 10,000 private security contractors in Iraq are so indispensable that no one questioned their tactics, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin.