Critical Motions

by Nathaniel R. Helms | May 6, 2008

The senior officer facing criminal charges in the so-called ‘Haditha massacre’ case is once again asking the government to dismiss charges against him for dereliction of duty and failing to obey orders in two ‘critical’ motions his lawyers intend to file at Camp Pendleton on Wednesday.

Robert Muise, a civilian attorney defending LtCol Jeffrey Chessani, will argue that the case should be dismissed because of unlawful command influence and selective prosecution, a Tuesday press release from the Thomas More Law Center said.

Since last fall the law center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and an appointed team of Marine Corps lawyers, have generated a blizzard of motions in an escalating campaign to dismiss the charges against Chessani, one of the Marine Corps, handful of elite infantry officers

Chessani is charged with failing to report and investigate the deaths of 15 Iraqi civilians killed in a cross-fire between insurgents and his troops. The civilians died along with eight insurgent combatants and one Marine in a complex attack precipitated by a roadside ambush on November 19, 2005 that also wounded 11 other Marines.

The Marine Corps then misrepresented the situation to the press, claiming the civilians were killed by the IED. The Corps compounded its error by sustaining the error for three months, the ensuing investigation has already shown.

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Thrown under the proverbial bus

The Marines responsible for the egregious error were part of a specially selected team of officers assigned to the Reportable Incident Assessment Team, usually referred to simply as RIAT. created to generate positive publicity and implement immediate damage control in the event the media uncovered potentially damaging stories about Marine Corps combat operations in Iraq.

One important function of the damage control team was to ‘afford the Commanding General with a specific means to counteract media backlash,’ 

It has since been revealed that the press campaign mounted by the Marine Corps to minimize the bad publicity after Haditha involved Col John Ewers, one of the Marine Corps top lawyers and the officer who investigated Chessani and his superiors. Ewers also created and ran the RIAT program during the 1st Marine Division’s initial deployment to Iraq in March, 2003.

The former battalion commander was ultimately left holding the bag when his commanders in Iraq threw him under the proverbial bus to protect themselves after the misinformation effort was revealed. Before the mad scramble to save their own careers, Chessani’s superiors rated him a superior officer suitable for high command.  

Ewers is expected to testify at the motion hearing. He has already been called to testify about undue command influence in the case of exonerated Marine LCPL Stephan Tatum. The morning after Ewers testified, Tatum’s case was unexpectedly dismissed.

Chessani, a father of six, served notably in every combat theater the United States has deployed Marines to since he joined the Corps more than 21 years ago. In April 2006 he was relieved of command, a career ending move by itself, and then vilified by the Marine Corps as an incompetent officer. If convicted by general court-martial Chessani faces dismissal from the service, the loss of all pay and privileges and up to three years in prison.

Scapegoat for Murtha and cronies

Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel for the Law Center said there is ‘no doubt’ that Lt. Colonel Chessani is a ‘political scapegoat’ of anti-war Congressman John Murtha and his Pentagon cronies that publicly proclaimed that a squad of Marines commanded by Chessani killed in ‘cold blood’ and that he and his officers were involved in a ‘cover-up.’

Murtha is the Chairmen of the House Armed Services Sub-committee on Appropriations and the undisputed best friend of pork purveyors in Congress.

Murtha initially claimed he obtained his information from ‘senior Marine Corps officials’ Thompson added.

In May 2007 Murtha repeatedly claimed he was personally briefed by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee. In fact, Murtha lied repeatedly to the press until Hagee publicly dismissed Murtha’s claims as untrue.  

Without even blinking in the camera’s cold stare Murtha then claimed he got his information from Time magazine, which had broken the fallacious Hadithi massacre story the year before. By that time, however, the Democratic Congressman’s web of lies had taken a life of their own and the completely specious massacre story spun completely out of control.

Eventually Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter a crony of Murtha who dined at the same pig fest as the Pennsylvania Congressman before being appointed to his post from the armaments industry, eventually censured Chessani’s superiors and pressed for adverse action against Chessani, a small group of his battalion officers, and four enlisted trigger-pullers.

So far two of the officer and three enlisted men have been cleared of all charges. One officer besides Chessani and one enlisted man remain under the threat of general court-martial.  

Maj. Gen Richard Huck, the 2nd Division commander, Col. Richard Sokoloski, his chief of staff, and Col. Stephan Davis, the regimental commander were ultimately ruined as well for failing to kowtow to a Time magazine reporter when he made the allegation in February, 2006. Winter told the officers their inability to investigate the matter, coupled with their failure to respond to a Time magazine reporter showed they didn’t understand how to fight counter-insurgency warfare.

For the defense

Defense attorneys will also seek to exclude certain government witnesses from testifying and ask the military judge to order further discovery of documents in the possession of the Government, the press release announced.

When the Haditha incident erupted, Chessani was commanding the Third Battalion, 1st Marines. It was involved in a house-to-house, room-by-room battle ensued when the 15 civilians were killed. 

Chessani’s actual court-martial is scheduled to begin June 17, 2008.  It was continued from its original start date of April 28, 2008 to accommodate a flurry of new motions.

In a separate matter, the law center last week filed a ‘Petition for Extraordinary Relief’ with the United States Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals in Washington, D.C on Chessani’s behalf.

The petition asks the military appellate court to reverse the military judge’s order denying the defense counsel’s request for evidence it deems essential to his defense. Along with the petition, the Law Center is asking the military appellate court to stay the trial until the issue is resolved and to abate the proceedings until the evidence it seeks is produced.


Nathaniel R. HelmsDefend Our Marines
6 May 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).