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Last Haditha Trial Ends In A Plea, Was Justice Served?

January 30, 2012 1 p.m.


Neal Puckett, represented Frank Wuterich in the last Haditha court martial at Camp Pendleton

Related Story: Truth Of Haditha Case May Never Come Out: Wuterich Defense Attorney


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 30th. Our top story on Midday Edition, to many reporters covering the Haditha trial, its conclusion in a plea deal did not come as a surprise. To others, including many Iraqi citizens, the reduction of charges for manslaughter in the deaths of 24 unarmed Iraqis to dereliction of duty was shocking. But to the man in the middle of the storm, Frank Wuterich, the conclusion of the trial was the end of a very sad six-year journey. Defense attorney Neal Puckett, welcome to the show.

PUCKETT: Thanks, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: You've been quoted as saying the plea deal is the beginning of Frank Wuterich's redemption. What is he being redeemed from?

PUCKETT: He's being redeemed from association with a massacre and blame for a massacre, and has the investigation proceeded, and as more and more facts came to light, it turned out that it was not a massacre. It was a very bad day in combat for the Marines. But it was Frank Wuterich's name that was associated with this from the very beginning. So this resolution for him, although it's a conviction, it's a misdemeanor conviction, but it demonstrates that although he was the guy in charge that day, he's not being held responsible for, and in fact was not responsible for the deaths themselves.

CAVANAUGH: What exactly did Frank Wuterich plead to?

PUCKETT: He pled guilty to a very, minor military offense called dereliction of duty. And the theory of hissing in was that he failed to maintain adequate technical control over his men that day.

CAVANAUGH: And didn't it have something to do where what he said to his men before the incident began?

PUCKETT: Yes, it was a widely misunderstood thing that he said. And in fact, he can't even remember what he said, but when he first reported this to the very first investigator, Colonel Watt, he said, I told my men tonight hesitate to shoot, or shoot first, ask questions later. Or words to that effect. Of course what he meant pie that, and what all marines understand that what he meant by that, was to not let insurgent fighters get the drop on you. However, because of the bad outcome that day, because the Marines cleared two houses, and there were quite a few civilian death, the prosecutors offered a plea bargain wherein, he could plead guilty to dereliction of duty, that possibility caused marines to think they could shoot targets before engaging -- deadly force. We are in your opinion winning the case, and wanted to proceed toward a possible acquittal, but it's very interesting because a couple years ago, we on his behalf, made an offer to the government to plead guilty to this very offense, and they turned it down, and we made an offer last year, and they turned it down. And I think because the truth was coming out, and that truth being that he wasn't responsible for anything other than perhaps failing to main attain control of his marines, that offer came back to us. And he accepted.

CAVANAUGH: I want to tell everyone, I'm speaking with Neal Puckett, who is the defense attorney for Frank Wuterich in the Haditha case. When we go back to 2006, when this occurred, there were a lot -- there was a lot of bad news coming out of Iraq, and very questionable cases which have been adjudicated. I'm remember wondering what you thought when you first heard about this Haditha case.

PUCKETT: I first heard about it, really, from my client. I got a call from him from Iraq. Someone had given him my name, and he called me, and I hadn't heard a news report of it. This was in early March of 2006. When I heard about it, I thought this is a situation that could probably be easily misunderstood, and the first thing I thought about it was going to be figured out and it wouldn't result in criminal charges.

CAVANAUGH: Usually when someone is charged with a serious crime, the first thing his lawyer tells him is don't say anything. Yet your client went to 60 minutes. Why did he, you, the both of you make that decision.

>> That's a really good question. I spent many days talking to him, and doing our own evaluation of the evidence, and I came to realize that everything my client was telling me was borne out by the evidence, and I evaluated him as a speaker, basically. And I realized that when we taped the 60 minutes broadcast, it was well in advance of any charges coming down, and I thought if folks from the Marine Corps saw him as I kid, and heard him, perhaps we could avoid all criminal charges. So the effort was twofold, one to possibly convince those in charge not to charge him with criminal offenses, and two, so that the American public could see that this man was not a monster, and was incapable of being a monster, the father of three girls, who could not have done such a thing as a "rampage".

CAVANAUGH: Do you think in retrospect it was a good idea?

PUCKETT: It was an extremely good idea. We weren't part of the battle, but the battle between 60 minutes and the government trying to quiet the outtakes to the interview, they played them as part of their case. And I talked to several people who up watched it, and what did you think? I believe him and I believe he's not guilty, in terms of mistakes on tactical decision making as a 22 year-old sergeant.

CAVANAUGH: Bodies giving, perhaps, a bad instruction to his soldiers to his fellow marines, what other mistakes does Frank Wuterich think he made that day?

PUCKETT: It wasn't so much in his mind what he said or how he said it. None of the Marines who were there that day in any of the interviews recall having heard that. So whether or not that was said could have been proven is a separate issue. But he just believes that as the senior marine there, he's not sure how he would have done it, but he was the person who was best able to perhaps prevent unnecessary loss of life, and he wishes he had been more proactive in controlling the flow of battle, if you will, so those lives could be saved.

CAVANAUGH: Many court observers thought the prosecution had a weak case against him, you obviously thought so because you were willing to see this case go to eye verdict. Why do you think it was pursued for so long by the government?

PUCKETT: The reason I can think of is that from the very beginning, from the investigatory stage, upon through the charges state of it, which marines got charmed, and which didn't, and which marines got their charges dropped, I believe the prosecution was aiming toward really just convicting Frank Wuterich, because they bought into the mythical notion that he had led his marines on a rampage that day. It started with a Times article, and they look at the pictures, and they think, well, how can this happen? And the thing that jumps to mind is these marines must have been out of control. So I think they pursued it for so long because they had taken so many actions to drop charges and give immunity that they were left with nothing else and no other marine was holding someone responsible for what happened.

CAVANAUGH: That idea of holding someone responsible, the military justice system is getting a lot of criticism for this case. How do you answer people who claim this outcome shows the military will not hold people accountable for war crimes against Iraqis?

PUCKETT: Well, I've been practices in the military justice system for 28 years now, and I was a military judge for five of those years, and I can tell you that the military justice system does hold people accountable. But as far as the Haditha cases are concerned, I believe if different decisions had been made in terms of dropping charges or dismissing charges or giving people immunity -- I believe had all the Marines who fired their weapons that day been required to be charged and go through some court mart nail process, I think perhaps a truth would have come out of all those cases rather than waiting till the last one and you don't get a truth. I believe we would know the truth of what happened that day, and know either that the Marines who did fire their weapons in the rooms where there were women and children, and Frank Wuterich was not that guy, by the way, perhaps we would know whether or not those individuals either engaged in criminal acts or they didn't, or they followed the rules of engagement. But because about the prosecution chose to basically let them off without trials, the truth-finding process of a court martial was denied us, the opportunity to learn all those facts.

CAVANAUGH: So after this long process, what you're saying is we still may not know the truth of what happened at Haditha.

PUCKETT: I don't think we will ever officially know the truth, but back to the fairness of the justice system, I believe if the justice system were taken to its full conclusion in every one of those cases, rather than individual prosecutors making decisions to drop charges, we'd know the truth. So I don't blame the justice system, I think it's wrong to blame the military justice system, but we may in an after- action report or lessons learned situation may want to look at those decisions to see where the blame lies.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering if you've ever thought about this. If you were an Iraqi, would you be able to accept the outcome of this whole case, this particular case with Frank Wuterich?

PUCKETT: I don't think there's any way they could accept it. It's interesting. What we keep hearing is this notion of a 76 year-old man in a wheelchair. Just to clear up things with your listeners, there never was a wheel chair in either one of those cases. I don't know where that notion came from. And there's also a gentleman that I've seen on film clips who shows a picture of a wound in his back, and he claims to be a survivor that day. He is not. He was not at Haditha and not by one of these marines. It's kind of crazy. Looking from the Iraqi perspective, it would appear that justice was not deputy because literally no one held accountable for what happened that day. And once again, I go back to had all the Marines who were charged opinion required to go to completion in their trials, I think we'd know a lot more, and I -- I can't hazard a guess as to the outcome, but I suspect that something closer to justice for the Iraqis would have already been obtained prior to staff sergeant Wuterich ever going to court martial.

CAVANAUGH: What is Frank Wuterich going to do now?

PUCKETT: Well, he's going to get a good discharge from the Marine Corps, and he's been training in the information technology field, and he's polishing up his residence maze, and he's hoping to get a job in that field.

CAVANAUGH: So he's definitely going to be leaving the Marines?

PUCKETT: He's definitely going to be leaving the Marine Corps in the coming few weeks. But he's note going to jail, and he's going to start a job as a civilian, a single father of three.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you for speaking with me.

PUCKETT: Thank you, Maureen.