Monday, January 9, 2012
The prosecution and the defense in the Haditha trial at Camp Pendleton have delivered their opening arguments. No one has yet been convicted for the death of 24 Iraqi civilians - including unarmed women and children - in 2005.
Marine Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich is the last man standing in the Haditha case. One by one, the other members of his squad have had their cases dismissed or have been acquitted, leaving squad leader Wuterich to take the brunt of the legal consequences.
The incident hit the headlines in 2006 after a Time Magazine reporter questioned a military press release blaming the civilian deaths on an explosion. An army investigation uncovered that Marines had shot the civilians as the the squad reacted to an explosion that killed one of their own.
The details of what happened that day are not clear. Five unarmed Iraqi men were shot at point blank range when they drove onto the scene. Wuterich said the men did not listen to commands, but the prosecution said it has witnesses who say no commands were given before the killings.
The squad is believed to have come under light arms fire, but Wuterich said he saw no shooting coming from the houses he and three of his men then stormed. Nineteen people, including 11 women and children, died inside of two houses. No weapons were subsequently found.
Reporter Alison St John provides more information on the opening of the trial on Monday's show.
Evening Edition airs weekdays at 6:30 PM on KPBS TV
Prosecuting attorney Major Nick Gannon, played a number of clips from an interview Wuterich gave to 60 Minutes in 2007, in which he said there may have been women and children in the houses he stormed.
Gannon described in gory detail the scene in the bedroom where the women and children were shot.
Gannon concluded his opening statement by saying Wuterich “never lost control of his squad, but he made a series of fatal assumptions,” and that he “lost control of himself.”
Wuterich faces up to 150 years in prison if found guilty on nine counts of voluntary manslaughter.
Yet even the first witness called by the prosecution today - Retired Army Colonel Gregory Watt - was complimentary about Wuterich. Watt conducted an investigation after the Time Magazine report was published; he told the court Wuterich was “forthright and professional.”
However, Watt recalled, he was surprised when Wuterich told him he did not make a positive identification - as the Marine rules of engagement require - before shooting the occupants of the house.
Wuterich appears ready to shoulder the responsibility for what happened, telling Watts: “My Marines did what I told them to do.” He believes his actions were justified, and said: "My job as squad leader is to make sure no more of my guys died or got killed."
The civilian defense attorney Haytham Faraj spent more than an hour going over the details of the case. Faraj cast doubt on the truth of the testimony from Wuterich’s squad members, characterizing them as “a bunch of scared Marines who were offered immunity.”
He also appealed to the eight-man jury, all of whom are Marine combat veterans, by telling them not to get caught up in the gory photographs of the dead civilians, but rather to use their personal experience of combat to put the event in context.
He concluded by asking the jury to “give Wuterich his life back, put Haditha behind us and move on.”
Gary Solis, a former military prosecutor and now a law professor at Georgetown University, said the prosecution will have an uphill battle in this case.
“The prosecution is swimming against the tide,“ Solis said. “Not necessarily because of the facts of the case, which are pretty strong in favor of the prosecution. The prosecution, however, has taken six years to come to trial and the benefit of the delay accrues to the defense.”
The case is expected to last several weeks and to involve dozens of witnesses.