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Marine Colonel Heads to Court in Haditha Killings

Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani is the highest ranking of seven Marines charged in the killings of 24 Iraqis in Haditha, but witnesses in the case have testified that officers higher up the command chain

Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani is the highest ranking of seven Marines charged in the killings of 24 Iraqis in Haditha, but witnesses in the case have testified that officers higher up the command chain also knew about the deaths.

Like Chessani, the witnesses said they saw no need to investigate how the Iraqis, including women and children in their beds, were slain.

It's a point defense attorneys may seize on during Chessani's preliminary hearing at Camp Pendleton, scheduled to start Wednesday.

 Brian Rooney, attorney for Chessani, said his client immediately reported the facts as he understood them of the Nov. 19, 2005 killings to his boss, Col. Stephen Davis, the commanding officer for the 2nd Marine Regiment at the time.

"That same night, he knew exactly what Chessani knew," Rooney said. "My guy is not guilty and neither are these other guys."

During several days of testimony earlier this month for another officer charged in the case, Capt. Randy W. Stone, a two-star general said he knew about the deaths but saw no need to investigate because he believed they happened during a legitimate combat operation.

 The killings took place during a morning of brutal combat in which a roadside bomb killed one Marine and injured two others. In the aftermath of the blast, a Marine squad went house to house looking for those responsible.

The Marines have said they believed they were taking fire from the houses. They used fragmentation grenades and machine guns to clear the homes, but instead of hitting insurgents they killed civilians, including children still in their pajamas.

Rooney said Chessani, 43, inspected the scene of the attack the same day and "saw no law-of-war violation."

Chessani is charged with dereliction of duty and violating a lawful order for failing to investigate the deaths. If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison. Three other officers are also charged with dereliction of duty and three enlisted Marines are charged with murder.

Rooney said he wanted several high-ranking officers to testify at the hearing, known as an Article 32 investigation, the military equivalent of a grand jury.

One of the witnesses he wants to call, Maj. Gen. Stephen T. Johnson, was the commanding general of Marines in western Iraq when the killings took place. Johnson told investigators he didn't feel the slayings were significant.

"Examples of many civilians being killed at a time were precedent for that," Johnson told investigators. "It happened all the time."

Johnson is unlikely to testify. Rooney said he has asserted his Fifth Amendment privileges against self-incrimination.

Rooney works for the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., a nonprofit Christian law firm that takes on issues of faith, family values and patriotism. Rooney said Chessani, from Rangely, Colo., is a committed Christian and the firm will represent him free of charge.

During Stone's recent hearing, Sgt. Maj. Edward Sax testified that "Chessani is the most morally correct Marine officer I have ever served with in my 27 years I have served."

The hearing is expected to last at least a week and defense lawyers will show many hours of videotaped testimony from Marine witnesses who have now been redeployed to Iraq.