Tuesday, January 24, 2012
The lone Marine to face sentencing for the killing of 24 unarmed Iraqis walked away with no jail time on Tuesday after defending his squad's storming of homes in the city of Haditha as a necessary act "to keep the rest of my Marines alive."
Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich's sentence ends a six-year prosecution for the 2005 attack that failed to win any manslaughter convictions. Eight Marines were initially charged; one was acquitted and six others had their cases dropped.
Wuterich, who admitted ordering his squad to "shoot first, ask questions later" after a roadside bomb killed a fellow Marine, ended his manslaughter trial by pleading guilty on Monday to negligent dereliction of duty.
The deal that dropped nine counts of manslaughter sparked outrage in Haditha and claims that the United States didn't hold its military accountable.
"I was expecting that the American judiciary would sentence this person to life in prison and that he would appear and confess in front of the whole world that he committed this crime, so that America could show itself as democratic and fair," said survivor Awis Fahmi Hussein, showing his scars from a bullet wound to the back.
Military judge Lt. Col. David Jones initially recommended the maximum sentence of three months for Wuterich, saying: "It's difficult for the court to fathom negligent dereliction of duty worse than the facts in this case."
But after opening an envelope to look at the terms of the plea agreement as is procedure in military court, Jones announced that the deal prevented any jail time.
Jones did recommend that Wuterich's rank be reduced to private, but decided not to cut two-thirds of his pay because the divorced father has sole custody of his three daughters.
Wuterich read a statement apologizing to the victims' families and said he never fired on or intended to harm innocent women and children. But he said his plea shouldn't be seen as a statement that he believes his squad dishonored their country.
"When my Marines and I cleared those houses that day, I responded to what I perceived as a threat and my intention was to eliminate that threat in order to keep the rest of my Marines alive," he said.
"So when I told my team to shoot first and ask questions later, the intent wasn't that they would shoot civilians, it was that they would not hesitate in the face of the enemy."
"The truth is I never fired my weapon at any women or children that day," Wuterich told Jones.
The contention by Wuterich, 31, of Meriden, Conn., counters testimony from a former squad mate who said he joined Wuterich in firing in a dark bedroom where a woman and children were killed.
Prosecutors argued that Wuterich's order to send his squad to assault homes without positively identifying a threat went against his training.
"That is a horrific result from that derelict order of shoot first, ask questions later," said Lt. Col. Sean Sullivan.
Defense attorney Neal Puckett said Wuterich has been falsely labeled a killer who carried out a massacre and insisted he only intended to protect his Marines in an "honorable and noble" act.