Camp Pendleton, Calif. – The General Court
Martial of US Marine Corps SSgt Frank D. Wuterich ended Monday morning
after a plea deal was reached over the weekend. In return for a guilty
plea to one count of Negligent Dereliction of Duty, the six-year
ordeal of the 31-year old father of three is finally over.
Negligent dereliction is a lesser included
offense detailed in Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military
Justice, Dereliction of Duty. Before the agreement, SSgt Wuterich was
charged with “Willful Dereliction of Duty,” a much more severe
offense. In return for his plea, 13 charges, including nine counts of
Voluntary Manslaughter, two counts of Aggravated Assault, and two
other charges of willful dereliction were dropped.
SSgt Wuterich faced more than 160 years in prison if
he had been found guilty and sentenced to the maximum sentence allowed
by law on each count. That option was never really on the table
although the specter of life in prison wore heavily on everyone
associated with the case since SSgt Wuterich and seven other Marines were
charged with massacring 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq on Nov. 19,
The maximum sentence military judge LtCol David
Jones can now impose on SSgt Wuterich is three months confinement and loss
of two -thirds of his pay while he is confined. The staff sergeant told the judge he earns $3,486 a month. At
risk if he is incarcerated are his three little girls, who are
otherwise without a resident parent.
SSgt Wuterich admitted he failed to maintain
"adequate tactical control" of three Marines he was leading and made a
"negligent verbal order." While answering the military judge’s
questions before the deal was done, SSgt Wuterich said comments he
made to troops he was leading were negligent and may have led to the
"tragic" deaths of the women and children.
"I took a team of Marines to clear houses to the
south of the site [where House 1 and House 2 are situated] and did use
the words 'shoot first, ask questions later,' or something to that
affect prior to clearing or entering there," he said.
The six-year long tragedy was triggered by a
specious story in Time magazine in which reporter Tim McGirk
accused a squad of Marines from Kilo, 3rd Battalion, 1st
Marines of running rampant through two houses full of civilians
killing everyone they saw in revenge for the IED death of one of their
own. McGirk graduated from University of California Berkeley and is
now teaching there with money the university obtained from donors to
create a fellowship teaching investigative journalism. McGirk was
never at Haditha and relied on two known insurgent sympathizers
masquerading as human rights workers for his “facts.”
Twenty-four Iraqis were killed, the Marine Corps
has said, including
six women and four children as Marines tried to find the gunmen who
had been firing on them from houses near the bomb blast. Five Iraqi
men died on a road the Marines called Route Chestnut, the only
hard-surfaced thoroughfare into the southern part of the city. SSgt Wuterich testified he took a knee and shot them when they tried to
flee after they inexplicably showed up seconds before the bomb
exploded. Several witnesses testified they were the only Iraqis
driving on the road when the blast occurred.
McGirk’s helpful human rights advocates, one of
whom had just been released from Abu Ghraib prison , and the other
whom Marine signal-intercept specialists had been monitoring for
months, were heard before the attack planning how to record the event
for propaganda purposes. Six of the victims died in the first house
the four Marines stormed and eight more died in the second they
cleared with grenades and rifle fire.
The event was precipitated by the gruesome death
of twenty-year old LCpl Miguel “T.J.” Terrazas, who died when a
remotely detonated roadside bomb tore both him and the Humvee he was
riding in to pieces. The bomb was buried in the hard-surfaced road and
then concealed with fresh cement in plain view of the victims who
lived there. Two other Marines were wounded in the attack. The
decimated squad was then fired upon by unseen gunman they believed
were hiding in and around two houses filled with civilians.
After the initial hearing concluded about 9:00 am
PT, SSgt Wuterich shook hands with his attorneys and then turned to hug his
parents David and Rosemarie Wuterich, who have been in the court room
every day since testimony began two weeks ago.
Lead defense attorney Neal Puckett told LtCol
Jones the negotiations that caused a flurry of speculation Wednesday
and Thursday never ended but in fact had continued through the
weekend. He offered the observation after LtCol Jones told the court
that the first round of bargaining “fell through” before court resumed
"Nothing ever fell through,” Puckett corrected
the unusually patient judge before the settlement was announced. “I’d
like to get that on the record.”
Defend Our Marines has e-mailed McGirk for
a comment. As of this writing he has not replied.
Sentencing is scheduled for Tuesday morning at
8:30 am PT.