Big break for
key Marine witness granted immunity
at left: SSgt Frank Wuterich and
then-Cpl Hector Salinas in Iraq, 2005.
Click to enlarge.
Big break for Haditha defense: key
Marine witness granted immunity
by Nathaniel R. Helms
December 28, 2007 -- Marine Corps
Sergeant Hector A. Salinas (erroneously identified as a murder suspect
by the media for his role at Haditha, Iraq but never charged) has been
granted testimonial immunity by the general overseeing the
investigation of the so-called “massacre” of 24 Iraqi citizens killed
On November 19, 2005 Salinas, then 21, was a grenadier in a squad of
Marine infantrymen from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st
Marines that was ambushed by an Al Qaeda financed and led attack force
at Haditha. His four-vehicle convoy was struck by a remotely detonated
Improvised Explosive Device that killed LCpl Miguel Terrazas, a
20-year old Texan and wounded two other Marines. Simultaneously their
convoy received sustained automatic weapons fire from insurgents
hiding in several nearby homes. During the ensuing firefight, the
squad killed eight insurgents and 15 civilians that lived in three of
the four homes from which the enemy sprang the ambush. An attached
Human Intelligence Exploitation Team later identified at least 11
other insurgents involved in the attack who were hired and led by Al
Qaeda foreign fighters operating in Haditha.
The civilians died when a four-man fire team led by Staff Sergeant
Frank Wuterich, then a 26-year old sergeant, stormed the houses with
grenades and automatic weapons fire. Before counter-attacking the
insurgent strong points, Wuterich, Salinas, and Cpl. Sanick Dela Cruz
engaged five Iraqi men fleeing from a nearby car that inexplicably
showed up at the ambush site at the same time the IED went off. Dela
Cruz, now a sergeant, later testified that Wuterich shot the men down
without provocation. Salinas is expected to refute that claim.
Then Wuterich’s fire team stormed the houses where the automatic
weapons fire originated from. During that violent clearing operation
15 civilians, including at least eight women and children, were
killed. Subsequently eight Marines – four of the enlisted men who
were in the fight – were charged with unpremediated murder and assault,
and four officers were charged with dereliction of duty for allegedly covering up the
Countering prosecution claims
Now 23, Sgt Salinas is considered a key defense
witness in the case. For more than a year Salinas has been in limbo at
Camp Pendleton, California waiting to discover what would become of him.
Although he was eligible for discharge last spring, Salinas
voluntarily remained in the Marine Corps past his enlistment
expiration date to avoid getting recalled to active duty and then
charged with a criminal offense, his attorney said.
Salinas served two combat deployments in Iraq, including the fierce
Battle of Fallujah in November, 2004. Since returning home from Iraq
in 2006 he has been promoted to sergeant.
On November 21, 2006 a National Public Radio “Morning Edition”
named Salinas as one of five enlisted Marines that would be
charged with war crimes for his actions at Haditha. The NPR story
claimed one of its reporters had obtained the names of the suspects
from an anonymous Department of Defense source.
NPR’s erroneous report was picked up and repeated numerous times
without correction by
other news organizations until the Marine Corps
announced exactly who it would charge on December 21, 2006.
Salinas was granted the limited immunity by
Lt. Gen. Samuel T. Helland, the
commanding general ofCamp Pendleton’s 1st Marine Expeditionary
Force and U.S. Marine Corps Forces Central Command. As such, Helland
is the “convening authority” and final arbiter in the ongoing Haditha
investigation. Helland took over the responsibility for conducting the
probe from Gen. James N. Mattis when he was promoted and transferred
Helland granted Salinas immunity at the request of attorney Jack
Zimmermann, a Houston-based lawyer representing LCpl Stephan Tatum
against multiple charges of negligent homicide, reckless endangerment
and assault. Zimmermann introduced motions to grant immunity to
Salinas, LCpl Justin Sharratt, and Lt Col Jeffrey Chessani before
Tatum’s military judge on December 17.
Zimmermann said Salinas was given immunity and the
request to grant Chessani the same status has not been answered,
although nobody expects that the judge will do so. Granting Chessani
immunity would effectively eliminate him as a defendant.
[5 January 2008: Defend Our Marines has learned that Justin
Sharratt was not granted immunity from future prosecution and is not
expected to testify.]
In return for testimonial immunity, which prevents the government
from using Salinas' testimony in any subsequent
proceedings, the sergeant is required to testify truthfully about his knowledge
of events at Haditha. His grant of immunity will become effective
after he signs the agreement when he returns to California from
Christmas leave, according to Daniel K. Hagood, his Dallas-based
attorney and a retired Marine Corps infantry officer.
Eight Marines were originally charged with
crimes at Haditha. Charges have been dismissed against four Marines
and two have been ordered to courts-martial. Cases against two other
Marines are still pending.
Possible broad impact
Salinas, among other things, is expected
to refute testimony offered by Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz, who was
granted immunity from murder charges to testify against his former
squad leader. Dela Cruz, who admitted
urinating on the dead body of one Iraqi he shot after Wuterich killed
the man, claims Wuterich told Salinas and him “that if we ever got hit
again we should kill everybody in that vicinity to teach them a
lesson." Dela Cruz claims they had the conversation with Wuterich
after a roadside bomb had gone off that injured several Marines.
Wuterich is currently waiting to discover
whether he will be charged with 17 counts of unpremeditated murder,
two counts of soliciting another to commit an offense, and one count
of making a false official statement. He faces life without parole if
he is convicted.
LCpl Stephen Tatum, who accompanied Wuterich
during the counterattack, faces a maximum of 19 years in prison if
found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, and
aggravated assault charges for killing several civilians. His
court-martial is scheduled to commence on March 28, 2008.
Lt Col Jeffrey Chessani, 43, faces court-martial for dereliction of
duty and violation of a lawful order based on the allegations that he
failed to properly investigate the shootings. The distinguished career
Marine and highest ranking officer to be charged with a crime at
Haditha could serve three years in prison if convicted on all counts.
His court-martial is scheduled to commence on April 28, 2007 at Camp
Brian Rooney, a member of the Thomas More
Law Center representing Lt. Col. Chessani, said from his office in Ann
Arbor, Michigan that if Salinas testifies as expected it could prove
beneficial for his client.
“In a perfect world, if Salinas’ testimony
helps exonerate SSgt Wuterich of murder, then it removes the
possibility that any war crime was committed,” he explained. “But that
is in a perfect world. In our client’s case the train has already
moved too far down the tracks. The government has too much invested in
Lt Col Chessani’s case to allow that to happen.
“Unless the convening authority decided to
dismiss the charges, my guess is that our client’s case will go to
The last Marine to be investigated in the
Haditha incident was 1st Lt. Andrew A. Grayson, of Springboro, Ohio.
His Article 32 hearing was held last November. The 26-year old officer
faces three charges of dereliction of duty, impeding an investigation,
and making a false statement related to the incident. Each of those
charges comes with the possibility of five years' prison time and
dismissal from the service. His charges are unrelated to anything
Salinas can testify about.
Attorney Daniel Hagood said Salinas is eligible for
discharge about 90 days after he returns to Camp Pendleton from home
leave, but has not decided whether he will reenlist or ask for his
discharge from active duty. In the event the scheduled court-martial
of Tatum is changed, or he is called as a witness in any other case,
Salinas will still be required to return to Camp Pendleton as a
witness or face possible involuntary recall under existing Involuntary
Ready Reserve, Hagood added.
Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
28 December 2007
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).