Facing military prosecutors who they charge “are desperately fighting to prevent the testimony of Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha, Secretary of the Navy Donald Winters and several top Marine generals, including former Marine Commandant Michael Hagee and the current Commandant James Conway,” attorneys representing Marine Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani insist those witnesses “will show the dirty hand of unlawful command influence — considered by the courts as the “mortal enemy of military justice.”
In hearings scheduled to begin Tuesday at Camp Pendleton, Calif., attorneys from the Thomas More Law Center will file a motion to produce the testimony of these high-ranking officials.
According to Brian Rooney of the Law Center the “Unlawful Command Influence motion is one of seven motions to be argued before Col. Stephen Folsom, USMC, the military judge." That motion, Rooney explained to Newsmax, will require the military judge to avoid even the “appearance of this evil” in his courtroom.
“It was obvious from the outset that Lt. Col. Chessani was being made a political scapegoat,” said Richard Thompson, chief counsel of the Law Center in an e-mail to Newsmax. “Even before the investigation was completed, Congressman Murtha publicly accused the Haditha Marines of 'cold blooded murder' and officers of covering it up. Murtha claimed he got his information from the highest level of the military.”
Chessani, one of the most highly praised Marine Corps combat commanders, was the commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment of the storied 1st Marine Division when parts of his unit were ambushed on Nov. 19, 2005.
According to the Law Center, the criminal charges against Chessani stem from what the Center called “a house-to-house, room-by-room battle that four of his enlisted Marines engaged in that day . . . after being ambushed by insurgents in the town of Haditha, Iraq.”
As Newsmax has reported, despite the fact that Chessani immediately reported the details of the day’s action to his superiors in the chain of command, including the deaths of 15 noncombatant civilians caught in the crossfire, the Center noted that “nobody in Lt. Col. Chessani’s chain of command, all the way to General Casey, showed any interest in conducting an investigation because they understood this to be combat action — not a law of war violation.”
That charge came later after Time magazine, in a story instigated by a known insurgent propaganda agent, caused panicky Pentagon officials to launch the largest and most expensive investigation in the history of the Naval Criminal Investigative Services (NCIS).
That investigation has lasted 30 months and has cost taxpayers unknown millions of dollars, yet as of now charges against three of the four enlisted men charged for their part in the Haditha incident have been dismissed.
Says the Center, “Lt. Col. Chessani, one of America’s most effective combat commanders in Iraq, now faces dismissal [an officer’s equivalent of a dishonorable discharge], loss of retirement, and imprisonment of up to three years.”
Brian Rooney explained that should defense attorneys be able “to produce some evidence of unlawful command influence, the burden will shift to prosecutors to show beyond a reasonable doubt that: (1) the predicate facts alleged by the defense are untrue; (2) the predicate facts alleged do not constitute unlawful command influence; or (3) the unlawful command influence will not affect the proceedings.”
This burden, Rooney explained “is high because command influence deprives service members of their constitutional rights. It is important to note that the court will determine not only whether there was actual unlawful command influence, but also whether there was an appearance of impropriety that would taint the public’s perception of the fairness of the court-martial.
Speaking from California today where he will be appearing at the hearings Tuesday, Rooney told Newsmax in an exclusive interview that “We’ve laid out a pretty thorough, well-thought-out case why unlawful command influence has reared it’s ugly head.
“We want these people put under oath, put under the crucible of cross examination and let the chips fall where they may. That’s what the American people deserve because there have been so many accusations about whether or not [former Marine Corps Commandant] Gen. Hagee or anybody else called the Marines cold-blooded murderers or that the officers covered it up."
Discussing Murtha’s role, the Law Center recalled that “On May 17, 2006, months before the investigation was completed, Congressman Murtha held his first news conference on the Haditha incident. Murtha said he had been told by the highest levels of the Marine Corps that there was no IED, there was no firefight, and the Marines 'killed innocent civilians in cold blood.'
“The next day, Murtha again spoke about Haditha and confidentially proclaimed ‘All the information I get, it comes from the commanders, it comes from people who know what they’re talking about. It’s much worse than reported in Time magazine.’”
According to the Law Center, Murtha “told a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer that Gen. Michael Hagee had given him the information on which he based his accusations.”
According to Rooney, who as a Marine Captain served during the bloody battle of Fallujah, “Murtha’s claim of cold blooded murder and cover-up fly in the face of previous investigations conducted by Army personnel.
The Center recalled that the first investigation conducted by Army Colonel G. A. Watt found ‘there are no indications that [Coalition Forces] intentionally targeted, engaged, and killed noncombatants.’ A second, by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell concluded there was no ‘cover-up’ by the chain of command, and that ‘[The inaccurate press release that launched Time magazine’s investigation] was not the result of any intent to conceal misconduct . . .’”
When Colonel Watt’s findings were given to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on March 10, 2006, one Pentagon official recalled that “Rumsfeld told aides that the case promised to be a major problem. He called it ‘really, really bad — as bad or worse than Abu Ghraib.’" Several sources, including Generals Hagee and Conway, have told defense counsel that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld decided to set up an oversight “body” to keep tabs on the investigations and prosecutions of the Haditha cases.
The Law Center, along with two detailed Marine lawyers, is defending Chessani, the highest ranking military officer charged in the incident.
The Center's Web site is www.thomasmore.org.
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