Monday, January 23, 2012

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, 2005.

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.

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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 Friday morning.

“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.