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Officer Recommends Murder Charges Against Marine Be Dismissed

The government's case against a Camp Pendleton Marine accused of fatally shooting Iraqi civilians in the western town of Haditha lacks sufficient evidence to go to a court-martial and should be droppe

The government's case against a Camp Pendleton Marine accused of fatally shooting Iraqi civilians in the western town of Haditha lacks sufficient evidence to go to a court-martial and should be dropped, a hearing officer said.

Lt. Col. Paul Ware said murder charges brought against Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt for killing three Iraqi brothers in November 2005 were based on unreliable witness accounts, insupportable forensic evidence and questionable legal theories.

Furthermore, he said, the case could have dangerous consequences on the battlefield, where soldiers may end up hesitating during critical moments when facing an enemy.

"The government version is unsupported by independent evidence," Ware wrote in an 18-page report released Tuesday by Sharratt's attorneys. "To believe the government version of facts is to disregard clear and convincing evidence to the contrary."

Prosecutors allege Sharratt and other members of his battalion engaged in a revenge-motivated assault on Iraqi civilians after a roadside bomb killed a fellow Marine. Sharratt contends the Iraqi men he confronted were insurgents and at least one was holding an AK-47 rifle when he fired at them.

"Whether this was a brave act of combat against the enemy or tragedy of misperception born out of conducting combat with an enemy that hides among innocents, Lance Corporal Sharratt's actions were in accord with the rules of engagement and use of force," Ware wrote.

He said further prosecution of Sharratt could set a "dangerous precedent that ... may encourage others to bear false witness against Marines as a tactic to erode public support of the Marine Corps and its mission in Iraq."

He added, "Even more dangerous is the potential that a Marine may hesitate at the critical moment when facing the enemy."

At home in Canonsburg, Pa., Sharratt's family was overjoyed.

"This is a huge result, that report is a declaration of Justin's innocence," said Sharratt's mother, Theresa. "This is very, very good news."

The recommendation to drop the murder charge is nonbinding. A final decision about whether Sharratt should stand trial will be made by Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the commanding general overseeing the case.

This is the second time an investigating officer has recommended charges not continue to trial in the killings. In the case of Marine lawyer Capt. Randy W. Stone, the investigating officer recommended Stone's dereliction of duty charge be dealt with administratively.

Besides Sharratt, two other enlisted men are charged with murder and four officers are accused of failing to investigate the incident - the largest single Iraqi civilian death case of the war.

Prosecutors at Sharratt's preliminary hearing introduced several accounts from Iraqis that said Sharratt had separated four men from a group of women and children and ordered them into a house. There, prosecutors said, he shot three of them and when he ran out of bullets the squad leader Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich allegedly shot the fourth.

Ware criticized the witness accounts as "unclear, contradictory in part and simply state self-interested conclusions."

He also knocked down testimony from other Marines that the government submitted as evidence as "rife with rumors, hearsay within hearsay, and unclear, confusing and often inadmissible opinions."

Defense attorneys James Culp and Gary Myers said in a statement they were pleased with the report and that it "reflected the value of the calm of a courtroom and the adversarial process."

Sharratt's case is the first of the three men who are charged with murder to go to a hearing known as an Article 32 investigation, the military equivalent of a grand jury.