CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- Four Marines were charged yesterday with murder in connection with the deaths of 24 men, women and children last year in the Iraqi town of Haditha, and four officers were charged with failing to make accurate reports and thoroughly investigate the deaths.
The Nov. 19, 2005, incident in the insurgent stronghold in the Euphrates River valley is one of several in which U.S. personnel face criminal charges for killing innocent Iraqis.
But the Haditha case is regarded as the most serious, both because of the numbers of victims and Marines involved and because the Marine Corps initially said the civilians had been caught in fighting between insurgents and U.S. forces.
The most serious accusations were leveled against a squad leader, Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, who allegedly murdered 12 people and ordered Marines under his command to "shoot first and ask questions later" in a sweep of homes that led to six more deaths.
The Marines allegedly went on a rampage after a roadside bomb exploded beneath a Humvee in their convoy, killing Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas and injuring two others.
The Marines initially reported that 15 civilians died in an explosion and eight others were killed in a firefight.
Only after Time magazine published an article in March suggesting that the Marine account was false did the military begin its own investigation. The criminal investigation, largely by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, led to the charges unveiled yesterday.
According to the charge sheet, Wuterich showed wanton disregard for human life when he gave the order to "shoot first and ask questions later" as he and other Marines were preparing to storm a house containing several people.
Marines are required to positively identify targets before an engagement, according to the charges.
The victims in Haditha included several women, six children and an elderly man in a wheelchair.
Wuterich, 26, also allegedly made a false statement in connection with the deaths of four other Iraqis who came upon the Marine convoy in a car, stating that the men had fired on the convoy.
Wuterich allegedly solicited another Marine to falsely state that the Iraqi men had been killed by Iraqi soldiers.
The case against the Marines could hinge on the so-called rules of engagement given to frontline Marines by their superiors.
Neal Puckett, Wuterich's defense attorney, expressed confidence that his client would be cleared. Innocent civilians did die, he said, but Wuterich acted in accordance with his training.
"Everything he did that day was in an effort to protect his fellow Marines after that [improvised explosive device] went off," said Puckett at a news conference after the charges were announced at Camp Pendleton.
Defense attorneys have said the Marines were following established rules of engagement by tossing fragmentation grenades into homes where insurgents were suspected of hiding and then following up with bursts of M-16 fire.
Wuterich and three other Marines face charges of unpremeditated murder, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. They are from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, based at Camp Pendleton.
The other Marines facing murder charges are: Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum, 25; Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt, 22; and Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz, 24. Tatum and Dela Cruz also face lesser charges.
None of the Marines was ordered confined during the coming preliminary hearings.
Theresa Sharratt, mother of Justin Sharratt, said her son was not guilty.
"He said, 'Mom, we followed the rules of engagement,"' she said, adding that her son "still loves being a Marine, but they let him down."
In addition, four officers not at the scene were charged with failing to make accurate reports and to thoroughly investigate the incident.
They are Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, 1st Lt. Andrew A. Grayson, Capt. Lucas M. McConnell and Capt. Randy W. Stone. Grayson was also charged with making a false statement.
After the Time magazine article, then-Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee went to Iraq to talk to frontline Marines about the need to use restraint and show respect for civilians and their property.
In an e-mail this week to the Los Angeles Times, Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, the convening authority in the case, said that "allegations of what took place in Haditha are not representative of the magnificent conduct our Marines demonstrate daily in a complex and challenging combat environment."
Young Marines need to "keep their ethical balance under morally bruising conditions," where enemy fighters often hide behind women and children, he said.
He added that Marines show daily restraint "to preserve the lives of those they are sent to protect and defend; often incurring risk to themselves as they strive to protect the noncombatants on the battlefield."
Under the military system of justice, Mattis will play an enormous role in the case.
After preliminary hearings, called Article 32 proceedings, he will decide whether the case is strong enough for court-martial. If there is a conviction by jury or judge, he can overturn it. And he is the final arbiter of any plea bargains.
In another case, in Hamandiya, where seven Marines and a Navy corpsman were accused of dragging an Iraqi from his home and murdering him, Mattis permitted plea bargains to lesser charges for the four least-experienced of the eight.
He also turned down a judge's recommendation that, after their brig sentences, each be given a dishonorable discharge.
Marines receive lectures about the laws of war, and the need to protect noncombatants, before they leave the United States and also soon after they arrive in Iraq. Refresher courses are given periodically.
Even as the Haditha charges were being announced, Marines were being lectured at Camp Falluja in Iraq about the laws of war and the rules of engagement.
The latter are classified rules that instruct Marines when it is appropriate to use deadly force, including how much verification is needed to determine that a threat justifies the use of M-16s and other weapons.
Richard Marosi and Tony Perry write for the Los Angeles Times.