Camp Pendleton – On Monday morning the general court-martial of a Marine infantryman accused of intentionally killing and wounding innocent women and children more than two years ago at Haditha, Iraq, signals the beginning of the end of the most notorious war crimes investigation in Marine Corps history.
The case shocked the world when Time magazine reported on March 19, 2006 that a squad of Marines from 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines slaughtered 24 innocent Iraqi civilians in retaliation for the death of one of their own men. The charges were picked up by politicians and pundits who trumpeted the incident around the world.
Before the story faded from the headlines it had been compared to the terrible massacre at My Lai, South Vietnam where American soldiers killed more than 500 civilians.
Last week Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum pleaded not guilty last week to involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, and aggravated assault for admittedly attacking a house with a grenade and rifle fire on Nov. 19, 2005 after his squad was ambushed by al-Qaida-led insurgents on a nondescript road called Route Chestnut. He was charged last October.
Tatum was a rifleman in the squad led by co-defendant Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, the only other enlisted man still waiting to be tried in the case. Wuterich also faces charges of voluntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, and related offenses.
Wuterich, Tatum, and two other enlisted Marines freely admitted to multiple investigators that they attacked two houses south of Route Chestnut after receiving small arms fire from the area. They moved into the attack after receiving orders from their platoon leader to “clear south,” testimony has already revealed.
In less than a minute, the four Marines stormed two houses with grenades and rifle fire, using carefully learned techniques of close quarters combat that incorporate overwhelming fire superiority and rapid fire and movement to overcome resistance. When the smoke cleared the Marines discovered they had killed 14 civilians in the relentless attack, they have repeatedly said.
Wuterich’s court-martial, initially scheduled to begin March 3, is on indefinite hold while government lawyers battle it out with attorneys representing the CBS television show "60 Minutes" over the government’s desire to obtain the outtakes from a television appearance by Wuterich almost two years ago. The government believes it will discover incriminating evidence offered by Wuterich in the discarded video tape. His defense team told the court the government was on a fishing expedition.
Both men were originally charged with multiple counts of unpremeditated murder and related offenses along with tour other enlisted Marines from the squad. Over time, the case has dramatically weakened as the allegations of unprovoked slaughter were revealed to be specious.
In a week or so a nine-member jury, called a panel, will decide whether Tatum should be imprisoned for as long as 18 years for participating in an attack ordered by his platoon leader and executed under the direction of his squad leader. The jury hearing the evidence in the case includes three enlisted men that Tatum asked the military judge to incorporate into the panel.
Under the rules of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Tatum's case could have been decided by the judge alone, a nine-member panel of officers, or a mixed jury of officers and enlisted men. In the event the defendant chooses to have his case heard before a panel, at least six members of the jury must find the defendant guilty in order to obtain a conviction, according to James Culp, a defense lawyer specializing in military law.
Culp was part of the defense team that gained the freedom of Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, another member of Tatum’s squad also accused of murder and a litany of other crimes in the case. Last year Sharratt was completely exonerated by Gen James N. Mattis, at the time the convening authority in the case.
So far, four of the original nine defendants — two officers and two enlisted men — have been exonerated and one enlisted man was granted immunity from prosecution to testify against his former comrades.
Tatum’s lead defense attorney is Jack B. Zimmermann, a retired Marine Corps combat officer who served tours in Vietnam before picking up the law and becoming a military judge. He leads a four-man defense team of two Marine Corps lawyers and another civilian representing Tatum.
The Marine Corps separately set up “Legal Team Charlie” to prosecute the Haditha cases, and lawyers were brought in exclusively for the team. The lead prosecutor in Tatum’s case is Col. Sean Sullivan, a reservist called to active duty from his Chicago law firm to prosecute him. Sullivan is part of a large team of prosecutors, Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agents and Defense Department consultants the government gathered together to prosecute the 26-year old Marine from Oklahoma.
The government has declined several requests to reveal how much money it cost to assemble 65 investigators, a platoon of lawyers, and an entire team of enlisted Marines and officers that operate a specially constructed “Media Center” at Camp Pendleton to showcase the trial.
Tatum was three months into his second combat deployment in Iraq when the Haditha incident occurred. In November 2004, he distinguished himself during the fierce fighting at Fallujah, Iraq when one member of his platoon earned the Navy Cross and the entire platoon was entered into the Pantheon of Marine Corps heroes.
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