by Nathaniel R. Helms | March 7, 2008

The 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.

Lance 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 war.

We 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.

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A 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 governments 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.  

Battleground prepared

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 judges 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 governments 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.

Brian 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 Marines.

Don’t 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 sentence.

The charges resulted from Tatums 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 innocents.

In addition to facing many years in prison if convicted, Tatum will be dishonorably discharged and stripped of his veterans benefits. With the exception of Wuterich, his former squad leader, he faces the harshest penalties of anyone involved in the case. 

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 had happened.

On November 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.

The 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.

A 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.

“We do 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).