Marine may call Murtha as witness

A criminal defense attorney for a Marine under investigation in the Haditha killings says he will call a senior Democratic congressman as a trial witness, if his client is charged, to find out who told the lawmaker that U.S. troops are guilty of cold-blooded murder.

Attorney Neal A. Puckett told The Washington Times that Gen. Michael Hagee, the Marine commandant, briefed Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, on the Nov. 19 killings of 24 Iraqis in the town north of Baghdad. Mr. Murtha later told reporters that the Marines were guilty of killing the civilians in “cold blood.” Mr. Murtha said he based his statement on Marine commanders, whom he did not identify.

Mr. Puckett said such public comments from a congressman via senior Marines amount to “unlawful command influence.” He said potential Marine jurors could be biased by the knowledge that their commandant, the Corps’ top officer, thinks the Haditha Marines are guilty.

“Congressman Murtha will be one of the first witnesses I call to the witness stand,” Mr. Puckett said yesterday.

Mr. Puckett represents Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, an eight-year Marine who was a key participant in the Haditha operations that resulted in the 24 civilian deaths.

The attorney said Sgt. Wuterich, 26, the married father of two daughters, led the squad of Kilo Company that mounted the four major combat actions on Nov. 19 that resulted in 23 deaths at a traffic stop and in three houses. The 24th Iraqi was killed while fleeing a home by a rooftop-stationed Marine or Marines, Mr. Puckett said.

The attorney said his client strongly rejects accusations in the press from Haditha residents that Marines lined up some of the civilians and executed them. Mr. Puckett said Sgt. Wuterich maintains that such an incident never occurred, and that Marines followed proper procedures in clearing the three houses.

“What’s being reported out there, it seems an awful lot of it is inaccurate,” Mr. Puckett said. He said his client, stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., has been promoted to platoon leader and is not under confinement.

“How would you feel to be falsely accused of killing innocent people,” the attorney said. “He was angered and hurt by it because he doesn’t understand how the public could think he and his Marines could do such a thing.”

Col. Dave Lapan, a spokesman at Marine Corps headquarters at the Pentagon, said Mr. Murtha was one of eight senior House members and senators briefed by Gen. Hagee in May on the investigation. “I don’t know what he told them,” Col. Lapan said.

A spokesman for Mr. Murtha did not return a message yesterday seeking comment.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) is expected to finish its probe by August, at which time Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, who commands the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Pendleton, will decide whether to bring charges that could include murder.

“If the NCIS has done a good job in this investigation, then Marine commanders will not feel compelled to charge these guys with homicide,” Mr. Puckett said.

“But since Congressman Murtha has already judged these guys in public and folks have alleged a Marine Corp cover-up, I’m afraid that the Marine Corps will feel compelled to put these guys on trial to prove the Marine Corps hasn’t done anything wrong in terms of a cover-up.”

On Nov. 19, Haditha remained one of the most dangerous and rebellious towns in Anbar province, a haven for both Sunni Muslim insurgents loyal to ousted dictator Saddam Hussein and foreign jihadists. The U.S. command in Baghdad had sent Marines on a “persistent presence” mission to pacify the area for Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. Lima Company, an Ohio Reserve unit that Kilo Marines replaced, suffered high fatality rates while patrolling Haditha.

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