Six years after Marines killed 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians, an incident denounced as one of the worst atrocities committed there by U.S. troops, the last of eight prosecutions ended as the previous seven had — without a conviction at trial.
Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who led the assault on homes in the Euphrates Valley city of Haditha, told a judge Monday that he regretted telling his men to "shoot first, ask questions later," and pleaded guilty to negligent dereliction of duty. All other charges were dropped.
Wuterich once possibly faced 152 years in prison; under the agreement between prosecutors and defense attorneys, he will serve no more than three months.
The 31-year-old father of three, who lives in the Temecula area, shook hands with his attorneys and hugged his parents after a brief hearing at Camp Pendleton. He remains on active duty, has never been confined to the brig and has been studying computer science while awaiting trial.
Response to the deal was quick and fiercely divided.
Bing West, a combat Marine in Vietnam and former assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, called the plea agreement "the right conclusion to a tragedy." Gary Solis, a former Marine prosecutor who teaches the law of armed conflict at Georgetown University, said Haditha could become a case study in how not to prosecute suspected war crimes.
Lt. Col. David Jones, the judge overseeing Wuterich's court-martial, will recommend a sentence Tuesday. Under military justice rules, he cannot propose a prison term that is longer than three months. Jones is permitted to conclude — as is Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who will make the final decision — that the plea itself is the sole punishment.
Charges had previously been dropped against six others involved in the Haditha assault, and a seventh Marine was acquitted.
Experts said they feared Monday's deal would reinforce a belief in the international community that the U.S. military has not held its troops accountable — nor met the standards of conduct it has attempted to impose far from home.
Among the dead in Haditha were seven children, including a toddler, three women and a 76-year-old man in a wheelchair. Some of the victims, a prosecutor said, were essentially executed, their wounds caused by gunshots so close that they left powder burns on the bodies.
One Marine, who was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony, told of how he had urinated on a dead civilian's head.
The case and its aftermath have also impeded U.S. efforts in the Middle East.
Resentment over Haditha was a key factor in Baghdad's refusal to grant American forces immunity from prosecution there. That decision hastened the end of the U.S. military presence.
One analyst said Monday that she feared Haditha would pose a similar threat to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
"This has contributed significantly to the cynicism of people in the region about America's rhetoric — about America standing for principles," said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "When push comes to shove, when it comes to looking at the misconduct of [U.S.] … soldiers, there is no accountability."
On a quiet morning in 2005, Marines from Camp Pendleton's 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment — nicknamed the "Thundering Third" — participated in a supply convoy through Haditha, which was then an insurgent stronghold. A bomb erupted under one vehicle, killing Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 20, and injuring two others.
The surviving Marines turned their attention to a nearby residential area that some believed was the source of additional small-arms fire. While preparing their assault, five men pulled up in a white car. Wuterich shot them to death.
According to one Marine's testimony, Wuterich told his comrades that they should tell investigators the men had been running away from the bomb; in fact, the Marine testified, the men were "just standing around," some with their hands raised and fingers interlocked over their heads.
Wuterich and the others then attacked two homes with M-16s and fragmentation grenades. The situation degenerated into chaos; the homes filled with smoke and debris, and one Marine acknowledged shooting at "silhouettes." Others said their only indication that the homes were "hostile" was that their fellow Marines were shooting.
A short time later, the Marine Corps released an official version of events: 15 Iraqis had been killed in the bombing, and the others had been killed in an ensuing firefight — none of which was true.
At the court-martial proceedings, much of the debate centered on Marines' rules of engagement.
A former officer who gave Wuterich the order to "clear" the area testified that he believed the nearby houses could be deemed "hostile" and that he expected the squad to "kill or capture the enemy I thought was in that building."
The apparent end to the Haditha cases was hailed by many Marines, who noted that many of the people commenting on the case have never been in combat.
"Many pundits from all walks of life will comment on Wuterich's purported guilt, and most of these are people who have never been remotely associated with the challenges of combat action," said Col. Willy Buhl, an active-duty Marine who fought in Iraq.
In an interview from his home in Pennsylvania, the father of then-Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt, one of the Marines whose charges were dropped, called the entire case "political persecution."
"It is a tragedy that occurred there," Darryl Sharratt said. "But those Marines were using their rules of engagement."
Jane Siegel, an attorney and the former chief defense counsel of the Marine Corps, said the outcome of the Haditha cases was just — and said the prosecution's failure to win a conviction at trial is a reflection of the military justice system.
All eight of Wuterich's jurors had combat experience in Iraq, Afghanistan or both.
"The people making these decisions have been there," Siegel said. "And they know how it changes you."
Other experts, however, expressed amazement at what they described as a flawed prosecution.
For instance, the military issued $2,500 condolence payments to victims' relatives — and then said those payments had tainted witnesses' accounts. Military prosecutors also granted immunity to Marines in exchange for their testimony, but still failed to win convictions.
"From the perspective that 24 civilians, including women and children were killed … and all that happens is one noncommissioned [officer] pleads guilty to what appears to be a very inconsequential offense, that makes us look bad," said David Glazier, a former Navy surface warfare officer who teaches international and national security law at Loyola Law School.
The failure of the Haditha prosecution will reverberate for years in Iraq, Samer Muscati, Human Rights Watch's Iraq researcher, said in an interview from Baghdad. With the withdrawal of American troops, U.S. officials are trying to implement democratic reform and root out widespread human rights abuses among Iraqi security forces. That could prove difficult, Muscati said, if Americans can't demonstrate that they practice what they preach.
"We're at a crossroads right now in Iraq," he said. "The impact of this is huge."