- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2006

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (AP) — With eight Marines charged in connection with the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians, the Marine Corps sent a clear message to its officers: They will be held accountable for the actions of their subordinates.

In the biggest U.S. criminal case involving civilian deaths to come out of the Iraq war, four of the Marines — all enlisted men — were charged Thursday with unpremeditated murder.

But the remaining four Marines in the case are officers, the highest ranking among them a lieutenant colonel. They were charged with dereliction of duty for failing to report or properly investigate the killings in the Iraqi town of Haditha last year.

The case marks the largest number of U.S. officers to be charged in a purported crime since the start of the Iraq war, said John Hutson, a former Navy judge advocate general.

“The honorable thing is not to ‘protect’ your subordinates,” said Mr. Hutson, who is now president of New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce Law Center. “The honorable thing is to look above that and realize they have a greater responsibility to the Marine Corps and military justice system.”

Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, 42, of Rangely, Colo., was charged with failing to accurately report and thoroughly investigate a possible violation and dereliction of duty. He could face dismissal and up to two years in prison.

Mr. Hutson said officers play an integral role in the way crimes are reported and how military justice is handled. He said if the officers did fail to properly investigate the deaths, their failures were more enduring “than these guys who allegedly murdered people.”

Besides Col. Chessani, officers charged in connection with how the incident was investigated or reported included 1st Lt. Andrew A. Grayson, 25; Capt. Lucas McConnell, 31, of Napa, Calif., and Capt. Randy W. Stone, 34, a military attorney.

The charges followed an investigation into Iraqi accusations that Marines went on a rampage after one of their own was killed by a bomb.

Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, 26, was charged with the unpremeditated murder of 12 persons and the murder of six others by ordering Marines about to enter a house to “shoot first and ask questions later,” according to court papers released by his attorney, Neal Puckett. He faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted.

Mr. Puckett said his client carried out the killings in accordance with his training.

“There’s no question that innocent people died that day, but Staff Sergeant Wuterich believes, and I believe, they did everything they were trained to do,” he said.

Sgt. Wuterich was also charged with making a false official statement and soliciting another sergeant to make false official statements.

Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz, 24, of Chicago, was accused of the unpremeditated murders of five persons and making a false official statement with intent to deceive.

Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, 22, of Canonsburg, Pa., was accused of the unpremeditated murder of three Iraqis. Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum, 25, of Edmund, Okla., was charged with the unpremeditated murders of two Iraqis, negligent homicide of four Iraqi civilians and a charge of assault upon two Iraqis.

The Marines, who are based at Camp Pendleton, have been under investigation since March. None will be placed in pretrial confinement, because they are not deemed a flight risk or a danger to themselves or others, said Col. Stewart Navarre, chief of staff for Marine Corps Installations West.

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