Murder charges have been dropped against one of the US marines in the shooting deaths of dozens of civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha, in exchange for his testimony in potential courts-martial against the other seven marines involved.
Reuters reports that the Marine Corps announced Tuesday that Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony about the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in 2005.
[Sergeant Dela Cruz] had been charged with premeditated murder and making a false report in the November 19, 2005, deaths, which damaged U.S. prestige and led to international condemnation.
"Charges against him were dismissed on April 2 after the government balanced his low level of culpability in the alleged crime against the potential value of his testimony," a Marine Corps statement said.
Three other marines, including squad leader Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, are still charged with murder, and four more are charged with dereliction of duty for failing to report and investigate the incident. The squad originally reported that 15 civilians were killed by a roadside bomb in Haditha and 8 insurgents died in the firefight that followed. They later recanted their report after evidence was found supporting the story of Iraqi witnesses, who accused the marines of killing civilians in a rampage after a bomb killed a member of the marines' convoy. Charges were brought against the marines in December 2006.
The Washington Post writes that Mr. Dela Cruz's attorney declined to comment on the case. The Post obtained a copy of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) report on the investigation earlier this year, however, and writes that the incident began when the marines stopped a taxi which contained a group of men who "appeared suspicious."
Dela Cruz told Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) investigators that his platoon leader, Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, shot five Iraqi men who had been ordered out of the taxi, according to a sworn statement obtained by The Washington Post. Dela Cruz admitted that he then shot into the bodies of the men, who he believed were dead, according to the investigative documents.
"As I crossed the median I saw one of the Iraqi civilians, who was standing in the center of the line, drop to the ground," Dela Cruz told investigators. "Immediately afterwards another Iraqi standing by him raised his hands to his head. I then heard other small arms fire and looked to my left and saw Sgt. Wuterich kneeling on one knee and shooting his M16 in the direction of the Iraqi civilians."
Wuterich and other Marines then allegedly stormed three houses and opened fire on people inside, killing some as they lay in bed.
The Post reports that Sergeant Wuterich's attorneys, who say their client and the marines under his command followed the rules of engagement, believing they were under attack, are prepared to defend against Dela Cruz's allegations, and that Dela Cruz has been forced by investigating officials into a difficult spot.
"We feel bad that Dela Cruz has been further victimized by being put in a position now, apparently, of having to turn on his own brothers," said Neal Puckett, one of the attorneys.
Dela Cruz's testimony may help shore up a case which the North County Times, a newspaper covering the Camp Pendleton area where the marines are based, says is "fraught with problems."
The difficulties include conflicting statements from Iraqis whose testimony led to the charges and an incomplete forensic reconstruction of the events on Nov. 19, 2005, that have resulted in prosecutors' delaying the start of hearings against some of the accused, the sources said.
Also at issue are interrogations of suspects conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Iraq during which agents allegedly refused to provide attorneys for some of those who asked for them and refused the men bathroom breaks, the sources contend.
The Haditha case is one of two involving Camp Pendleton Marines. The second case involves a group of seven marines and one navy corpsman who are charged with the kidnapping and murder of an Iraqi man in Hamdaniyah, and then making it appear that he planted an explosive device.
The North County Times writes that defense attorneys in the Haditha case are expected to challenge the NCIS's reconstruction of events and its refusal to provide attorneys to some suspects. One source also told the NCTimes that at least two officers not involved in the investigation complained about the treatment of the suspects, who were interrogated for periods as long as 12 hours without a bathroom break. Several sources add that a team of Camp Pendleton prosecutors returned to Haditha for further investigation at least in part because the NCIS forensics were considered lacking.
In its report on Dela Cruz's testimonial immunity, The Associated Press says that no preliminary hearings or court dates have been finalized, and that the single hearing that had been scheduled to take place was postponed. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported last week that the Article 32 hearing of Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt, who faces three counts of murder for his part in the Haditha incident, was postponed at the government's request. An Article 32 hearing is similar to a grand jury, and determines whether an accused soldier will face a court martial.