Concluding a six-year investigation into the killings of two dozen Iraqi civilians in Haditha, Iraq, on Tuesday, January 24, 2012 United States Marine Corps Staff Sergeant, Frank Wuterich, plead guilty to one count of negligent dereliction of duty. He was sentenced to ninety days imprisonment, but agreed to a plea deal that allowed him to avoid jail time. While seemingly arbitrary and unjust to some, the plea is a reminder of the difficult and split-second decisions servicemen and women face on a day-to-day basis while in combat overseas.
On November 19, 2005, Wuterich, squad leader assigned to third Battalion, first Marine Regiment, first Marine Division, was moving his patrol unit through Haditha, an insurgent stronghold where armed resistance fighters hid among the general population. An improvised explosive device exploded under a vehicle, killing one Marine and injuring two others. Wuterich and his team stormed the houses nearby, under orders to “shoot first and ask questions later.” After a forty-five minute ordeal, twenty-four civilians, including ten women and children, were killed.
Wuterich originally faced 152 years in prison on nine counts of involuntary manslaughter, two counts of assault with a deadly weapon and three counts of dereliction of duty. Prosecution in the case accused Wuterich of seeking revenge, while Defense attorney, Neal Puckett, argued that Wuterich only meant to protect his fellow Marines in an “honorable and noble” act.
As the investigation progressed, it became clear that the prosecution had holes in their case. The prosecution encountered conflicting evidence and testimony, and some hypothesized that Wuterich was taking the fall for higher-ranking officers and officials, as this was his first time in combat. Charges were reduced, and Wuterich eventually pled guilty for one count of dereliction of duty. The military judge, Lieutenant Colonel David Jones, recommended the maximum sentence of three months imprisonment; however, after reviewing the contents of the plea deal between Wuterich and the prosecution, he instead demoted Wuterich to the rank of private. Charges against six other Marines involved in the incident were dropped and another was acquitted.
Khalid Salman, head of the Haditha local council, hoped that the soldiers would “receive fair punishment” but is “now convinced that the judicial system in America is unjust.” He stated that they will pursue legal action against the soldiers through the international courts. On his Facebook account, Kurdish lawmaker, Mahmoud Othman, pled to “the human right organizations and (nongovernmental organizations) in America and all over the world to strongly condemn this verdict. Iraqi blood isn’t so cheap.”
Wuterich issued a statement apologizing to the families of the victims and emphasized that “it was never my intention to harm you or your families. I know that you are the real victims of Nov. 19, 2005.” Although he pled guilty on one count, Wuterich stressed that the purpose of the squad’s actions were to secure the area, not harm civilians and that his plea should not be considered a concession of erroneous actions on behalf of the platoon.
It is difficult to validate the death of twenty-four innocent men, women, children and elderly. However, it is also crucial to keep in mind the circumstances under which the incident occurred. Wuterich and his men were in hostile territory immediately after a car bomb detonated and killed a member of his team. Although Marines are trained to handle stressful and emergency situations, Wuterich was forced to make a split second decision aimed at securing the safety of his men. He made the decision he thought was necessary, and while the lives of one group of people cannot be held at a greater value than those of another, Wuterich took action he thought was best.
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief