The Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals in Washington denied a government motion to reconsider the dismissal of all charges against the highest ranking Marine Corps officer involved in the so-called “Haditha Massacre.” But Lt. Col. Jeffery Chessani’s legal battles may not be over yet.
On March 17, a three-judge panel of the highest military court dealt government prosecutors a setback when the judges upheld a lower court decision dismissing charges against Chessani. After waiting 30 days, the government appealed the decision, asking that the entire nine-member court reconsider the case. That same court rejected the government’s second appeal without comment late Tuesday.
A majority of the nine military judges would have had to agree to review the case again, said Brian Rooney, one of the civilian defense lawyers from the Thomas More Law Center representing Chessani.
The career Marine, now 45, was commanding Third Battalion, 1st Marines on Nov. 19, 2005, when al-Qaida-led insurgents ambushed an infantry squad under his command was ambushed at Haditha, Iraq. The IED assault led to the deaths of 24 Iraqis and a Marin.
Thirteen months later, eight Marines — four officers and four enlisted men who were ambushed — were charged with war crimes. Except for Chessani and the staff sergeant leading the infantry squad, all of the Marines have been exonerated.
Richard Thompson, chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, commented, “This case has turned into a government vendetta against a patriotic Marine combat officer who loyally served his nation for over 20 years.”
Chessani is accused of dereliction of duty for failing to inform his chain of command about the civilian deaths and orders violations for allegedly failing to make adequate combat journal entries that reflected what happened.
The criminal case stemmed from a fierce house-to-house, room-by-room combat action that four of his Marines took after being ambushed. Their lightning counterattack killed nine insurgents and 15 civilians. The ambush was the start of a day-long battle that broke the back of insurgent resistance in Haditha, a city known for its huge dam and extensive oil pumping facilities.
Every officer in Chessani’s chain of command, including a reviewing general, commended him for his actions until the publication of a magazine article months later charging the Marines with committing a massacre. Claims of a massacre were later proved to be untrue.
The government now has 60 days to appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. If the government loses at that level, it can seek a U.S. Supreme Court review. After all the appeals are over, the government can attempt to bring a new case against Chessani with a new convening authority (a new general overseeing the case if that new general so desires), Rooney explained.
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