LCpl Tatum trial now leads the way in
the so-called "Haditha Massacre" case
by Nathaniel R. Helms
| March 7, 2008
long anticipated court-martial of Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich is now
on hold, clearing the way for the first trial of a Marine rifleman
facing charges for unlawfully killing Iraqi civilians after being
ambushed in Haditha, Iraq.
Corporal Stephen Tatum is now scheduled to stand before a general
court-martial on March 28, marking the beginning of the end of the
29-month ordeal for four Marines still waiting to come home from the
have been told that SSgt Wuterich's trial has been stayed for
appellate review of a pretrial ruling. I have not seen a court order.
However, we will insist on going forward with a pretrial hearing on 27
March, and select the members on 28 March.,” defense attorney Jack B.
Zimmermann said on Thursday.
Marine for the defense
Zimmermann, a retired Marine colonel and Houston defense attorney, has
served every side of Marine Corps justice. His joint military-civilian
team of defense attorneys has been relentlessly chipping away at the
government’s case since their warrior client learned he faced criminal
charges in the summer of 2006.
On December 21, 2006 Tatum was charged with
multiple counts of murder, negligent homicide and assault for his role
in the so-called “Haditha Massacre.” The incident got its name when a
Time magazine article by Tim McGirk in March 2006 claimed a
squad of Marines had hunted down and executed 24 civilians in
retaliation for the death of a Marine in their squad. It was quickly
dubbed the worst atrocity in American arms since the My Lai Massacre
during the Vietnam War.
Rep. John Murtha, the powerful Pennsylvania
Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services sub-committee, seized the
theme when he claimed the Marines were cold blooded murderers
protected by Marines officers who conspired to cover up their heinous
crime. His allegations provoked world-wide condemnation of the Marine
Corps as well as criminal charges against eight
Marines. Ever since, the government’s case has been falling apart.
On October 19, 2007 two counts of murder,
four counts of negligent homicide, and a count of assault filed
against Tatum were dismissed by Lt. Gen Samuel Helland, the convening
authority and final arbiter in the case. Several months later Helland
dismissed murder charges against Wuterich, removing forever the onus
of war crimes in the case. Four other Marines – two officers and two
enlisted men – had their charges completely dismissed.
In last minute legal maneuvering both sides
of the case filed motions to shape the legal battlefield. Last week,
the government filed an appeal to a military judge’s ruling in the Wuterich case that the CBS television network didn’t have to turn over
outtakes of a 60 Minutes program featuring Wuterich telling his
story. The judge called the government’s motion to compel CBS to
comply with its demands a “fishing expedition.” The government
appealed in a motion in what several defense attorneys called an
“almost unprecedented” effort.
Rooney, co-counsel in the defense team representing former 3/1
battalion commander Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, called it a desperation
move by the government to bolster its sagging prosecution of the
you think if 60 Minutes had something incriminating – Wuterich
admitting he knowingly killed women and children – something like
that, it would have ended up on the cutting room floor?” rhetorically
asked Rooney, an associate in the non-profit Thomas More Law Center
representing Chessani. “If 60 Minutes had something like that it would
have been on television.”
Long ordeal nearly over
The unexpected appeal by
the government was good news for Tatum, 27, an Oklahoma son who served
two combat tours in Iraq with Kilo Co., 1st Battalion, 3rd
Marines. The long ordeal has taken its toll on him and his family. It
is never far from their minds that he faces
two counts of involuntary manslaughter that carries a maximum 10-year
sentence for each count, a charge of aggravated assault, carrying an
eight year penalty, and reckless endangerment, with a one-year maximum
The charges resulted from Tatum’s
participation in an attack ordered by his platoon leader to clear two
houses where insurgent fire was coming from after a
remotely-controlled IED that announced a day-long complex attack and
killed 20-year old Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas. Tatum, led by Wuterich
and accompanied by two other Marines, stormed the houses with grenades
and automatic weapons fire in a lightening counter-attack.
When it was over the Marines discovered
they had killed 15 civilians, including women and children when they
burst into the dark, smoke-filled houses. Also killed in the
firefight were eight insurgent soldiers who were hiding among the
In addition to facing many years in prison if
convicted, Tatum will be dishonorably discharged and stripped of his
veteran’s benefits. With the exception of Wuterich, his former squad
leader, he faces the harshest penalties of anyone involved in the
By contrast, the major general and two
colonels who commanded him at the highest echelon received Letters of
Censure that ended their careers. None of them were charged with any
crimes. The highest ranking officer to actually face incarceration and
dismissal from the Corps, after 20 years of distinguished service, is Lieutenant Colonel Chessani. Despite having six children, he
has served in every hotspot Marines have encountered during his
career. Chessani is charged with dereliction of duty and failing to
obey orders by not adequately informing the general and colonels of what
13, 2004, Tatum distinguished himself in the famous “Hell House” fight
at Fallujah, the fiercest fight in the deadliest battle of the war.
During that engagement, his squad helped rescue ten wounded
Marines who were trapped in the house.
29-month ordeal has devastated the fortunes of Tatum’s family,
including another son who served in the Army in Iraq. His parents have
had to re-mortgage their home, disposes of all their assets, and
appeal to the public for help with defending their son. It was a harsh
burden for the proud family to bear. So far Tatum’s defense has cost
more than $500,000 and incalculable heartbreak in his family.
public fund drive led by the news magazine NewsMax, and other
volunteer organizations, has helped pay for the expert witnesses,
travel, and tremendous legal expenses, but any more delays threatens
the slender war chest already accumulated to pay for his defense.
not intend to let the government get away. We are going after them on
28 March,” Zimmermann said.
Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
7 March 2008
Note: Nat Helms is a Contributing Editor to Defend Our
Marines. He is a Vietnam veteran, former police officer, war
correspondent, and, most recently, author of
My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story (Meredith Books, 2007).