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What's Behind Frank Wuterich's Plea?

January 23, 2012 1:14 p.m.


Jane Siegel, Adjunct Professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law

Alison St. John, KPBS Senior Metro Reporter

Tim McGirk, Time reporter who broke Hadita story, Damage or Civilian Massacre in Haditha?

Related Story: Marine Will Not Do Time In Haditha Killings


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Monday, January 23rd. Our top story on KPBS Midday Edition, the final US marine to stand trial for the killings in the town of Haditha Iraq has pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. This brings to an end the prosecutions in Camp Pendleton in the connection with the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians. Joining us is KPBS senior metro correspondent, Alison St. John from Camp Pendleton. Good morning.

ST. JOHN: Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: What did Frank Wuterich plead guilty to?

ST. JOHN: It's a single charge, Maureen, of negligence, dereliction of duty. That places nine counts of voluntary manslaughter, which replaced the original charge of murder. So it's come down to this one charge of negligence, dereliction of duty. And the key word is negligent, rather than willful. So it's a relatively minor charge.

CAVANAUGH: You were in the courtroom this morning. What did staff sergeant Wuterich actually say to the judge in connection to this plea?

ST. JOHN: Yes, this is the first time we've heard Wuterich actually address the Court. And the judge told him to describe what he was pleading guilty to. And Wuterich said, well, after the IED went off, those who are familiar with the case know that a bomb blast went off killing one of the Marines in his squad, and it was in reaction to that. But he was clearing the area in which this happened. After the IED went off, he said I did direct a platoon of marines and directed them to clear homes to the south, and I did use the words to the effect, shoot first, ask questions later before entering the homes. And he said that it was not his intent to misguide his squad about the rules of engagement. But that he understood that it's possible that the squad might have misunderstood him to be encouraging them to do that.

CAVANAUGH: Now, what was Wuterich's demeanor after the plea deal was announced? Were family members in the courtroom?

ST. JOHN: There were family members in the courtroom. I couldn't see them -- they had a media room next to the courtroom, and there's a video screen where you can see some of those who were in the courtroom. And today, we were able to see Wuterich with his defense attorneys. And he appeared calm. He did appear contrite when he said to the judge that he was pleating guilty to this negligence, and the fact that his marines might have understood him to be encouraging them to ignore the ruleless of the engagement. Specifically, the rules of engagement in question are the ones that say you have to positively identify your target before opening fire or lobbing a grenade into the house. And he did have a definite sense of resignation, as though he reached a point where he was willing to admit that this was his fault. But he has fought all the way through to not plead guilty to murder. He has felt, I think in himself, very clear that he was not guilty of murder. He felt like he was just following his training, that his actions were justified, and in fact, we remember last week, he did refuse a plea deal. That was because he felt he wasn't being offered a deal that exonerated him enough. He is personally individually very convinced that he did not deserve a manslaughter charge. But today you could tell that he was kind of resigned and regretful. He had expressed regret in the past about what happened. And he admitted, yes, I did tell -- use words to that effect, to my marine, shoot first, ask questions later.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of sentence does he face?

ST. JOHN: The recommended sentence is just a maximum of three months in the brig, incarceration, a maximum of three months of his pay being docked by 2/3. And he'll be reduced to the lowest pay rate in the Marine Corps, E1, so I believe that's a five or six demotion as it were.

CAVANAUGH: Is this the stiffest sentence anyone connected with Haditha has received?

ST. JOHN: Well, it's interesting, and seven other people have been investigated and charged with various charges, and they've all been either dismissed or in 1†case acquitted. So you could say that it's the most anyone's been charged with, legally, however, there have been other people who have lost their jobs, who have been forced out of the Marine Corps, who didn't have their

S anymore. And so to some degree, if you looked at it carefully, you might not find some people were suffering more than Wuterich in this sense.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Alison. On the line now is professor Jane Siegel, at the Thomas Jefferson school of legal, a military law expert who defends members of the military, and also on the line, Tim McGirt, a reporter who originally broke the story.

SIEGEL: Thank you.


CAVANAUGH: Tim, I want to get your reaction to the fact that in is the final prosecution. This is how the story ended. What's your reaction to that?

MCGIRT: Well, I mean -- my first reaction was how do you explain to the relatives, the 24 Iraqi civilians who were killed, they were all unarmed when they were killed, women and children were among the dead, an old man in a wheel chair, how do you explain to them that this sergeant Wuterich, who led the charge on their houses is getting off with basically a slap on the wrist? Three months in the brig and this pay cut and stripped of his sergeant's rank? I think that they would be really aghast at this.

CAVANAUGH: But is anyone trial explain that to the people in Iraq? Have the people in Iran been following this trial? And what initial reaction have you heard?

MCGIRT: I haven't heard if there's any initial reaction. I'm sure they are following it. And the Haditha case is really one of the reasons why the Iraqis decided that they didn't want US troops to continue on their soil, and that was part of the whole breakdown in negotiations. After Haditha, they wouldn't accept that American troops were covered by immunity from prosecution. And the US, of course, would never 43 to that. And so that was really one of the big breakdowns on why the US is leaving Iraq as quickly as it did, and not leaving any combat troops.

CAVANAUGH: This seems equity a drop, a misdemeanor dereliction of duty plea to the manslaughter charges that were facing Wuterich. Why do you think the government would agree to a plea bargain like this?

SIEGEL: Well, I am a retired Marine Corps colonel. And I served almost 25 years. So all -- all as a lawyer. But let me say this. First of all, staff sergeant Wuterich is not getting off with a slap of the wrist. Staff sergeant Wuterich spent over six years in levin worth and previously in the Camp Pendleton brig for crimes which by virtue of a court proceeding he's not guilty of.


SIEGEL: So I'd just make that comment first.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And to my question, why do you think the government would agree to a plea bargain like this?

SIEGEL: Well, again, going back to the last answer you got, in all likelihood, the government had tremendous difficulty getting Iraqi citizens to the United States who were willing to testifies to what happened. And although they would not need a great number of those, they would probably need somebody. These Iraqis who have been supposedly watching this, in all likelihood were not willing to come or because of something in their background, the government could not get them into this country. Additionally, because the government has taken so long to get these charges to court, they have had trouble rounding up witnesses and finding everyday all over again. This always happens when cases and discipline are delayed for such an extraordinary amount of time.

CAVANAUGH: We have heard an awful lot in discussions of this trial about the rules of engagement. And apparently, I may be characterizing this, but apparently in this deal, Wuterich does admit that his staff might have gotten an impression for doing things that he didn't intend them to do because of words that he said. What do you know about the rules of engagement when it comes to what happened at Haditha?

MCGIRT: Well, I think that your metro correspondent summed it up, that one of the rules of engagement, and the critical one in this case, is positive ID. Where the incoming gun fire is coming from. And in this case, there was never any proof that was brought up that people from these three houses were firing at the Marines. And among those who were killed were three students and a taxi driver who were hauled out along the road. There was no guns found on them. There was no evidence that they might have set off the IED that killed the Marine and wounded another. And these people were shot down on the roadside. The people in the houses who were killed, there was never any positive evidence that there was rounds being fired from these houses at the Marines, before the Marines stormed in.

CAVANAUGH: And professor Siegel, the rules of engagement?

ST. JOHN: Yeah, well -- let me say this. Yes, that's what the rules of engagement say. And I'm sure staff certainly Wuterich knew them. They get more than enough training before they go. But what I think people don't account for is this: These marines are young, and they have spent 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year being terrified. They can't so much as go outside the wire to -- from one base to another without raving at substantial cost and likelihood, losing their lives. When you're under that kind of pressure, and under that sort of anxiety, it changes a person. And to say when you're at the security of your desk oral at headquarters, Marine Corps, ownership at whatever central command is wherever they're located at the time, that this is what it is, and then be under the conditions of war in a small unit, where you are taking fire, when you have had your -- blown up, where you have lost a comrade, and had another one maimed, and you are being fired upon, it is not unreasonable that he would believe that he had, A, located the police from which the firing was coming, even though he may not not known who was holding which again. And when a vehicle approaches and does not stop upon warning, that that may also be authorized under the circumstances.

CAVANAUGH: Professor Siegel, you are not eradicating the tire concept of war crimes? Anything is permissible if somebody gets scared enough?

ST. JOHN: I'm not suggesting that at all. What I'm suggesting is you have to put these actions in context. And it was not as though they rolled up on a home and blew it up. There were initial consequences, and initial actions, with initial harm, and they did know that some of these rounds were coming from that house they went into.

CAVANAUGH: I'm running out of time here. Let me ask a final question to both of you. What do we learn from this?

MCGIRT: I think that professor Siegel is right in the sense that they had been under attack. But I think the lesson that you would to take away from this thing is look at the lasting harm that the reaction that these admittedly terrified marines took on the whole effort that America had in Iraq, in trying to win over the Iraqis to their side, and so that they wouldn't join forces with the opposition, with Al-Qaeda, and people like that. And I have to say that the events in Haditha certainly polarized the people against the US forces and it was incredibly counter productive to their mission.

CAVANAUGH: And professor seeing signal what do we learn from this?

ST. JOHN: Well, I think what you learn is when you have to go to war, you've already lost the battle. And the notion of winning over the hearts and minds with a war is never going to happen. That's what I take away from it. You don't have a war and then say you're winning over hearts and minds.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you both very much for your comments about this.