By PAUL von ZIELBAUER and CAROLYN MARSHALL
Four marines were charged yesterday with murder in the killings of two dozen Iraqi civilians, including at least 10 women and children, in the village of Haditha last year, military officials said at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Military prosecutors also charged four officers, including a lieutenant colonel in charge of the First Marine Regiment’s Third Battalion, with dereliction of duty and failure to ensure that accurate information about the killings was delivered up the Marine Corps’ chain of command. A military investigation has found evidence that Marine officers may have obscured certain facts in the case.
The Marines could punish other ranking officers administratively in weeks to come. But the criminal charges filed yesterday against Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, 42, and three other officers reflect an unusually aggressive judicial reaction by military prosecutors to a massacre that has damaged the military’s credibility with Iraqi officials and civilians, military justice experts said.
“This is very aggressive charging — wow,” said Gary Solis, who teaches the law of war at Georgetown University Law Center and at West Point. “I think this illustrates the deep seriousness the Marine Corps takes with these events.”
He added, “I definitely think the Marine Corps is sending a message to commanders, to those in authority of combat troops, that they better pay close attention to the activities of their subordinates to ensure that there was no wrongdoing.”
Though this was not the first instance of American forces being charged with killing Iraqi civilians, the charges announced yesterday, including 13 counts of murder against one sergeant alone, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 26, suggest that military prosecutors view the Haditha killings as being among the most serious breaches of military rules in the nearly four-year war. The charges are a result of two military investigations into the actions of members of Company K, Third Battalion, First Marine Regiment after a roadside bomb killed one of their comrades shortly after 7 a.m. on Nov. 19, 2005, in Haditha, a village in a region northwest of Baghdad that is rife with Sunni Arab insurgents.
A total of 24 Iraqis, nearly all of them unarmed, were killed by several marines in a series of attacks on a car and three nearby homes over the next several hours, military officials said.
The four enlisted men charged with unpremeditated murder, all members of a squad of Company K, Third Battalion, First Marine Regiment, are: Sergeant Wuterich of Meriden, Conn.; Sgt. Sanick De La Cruz, 24, of Chicago; Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt, 22, of Carbondale, Pa.; and Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum, 25, of Edmund, Okla.
Sergeant Wuterich and Sergeant De La Cruz confronted five military-age men — a taxi driver and four college students — after marines frantically ordered the vehicle to stop, about 100 yards from the stalled Marine convoy of four Humvees. The two marines were each charged with murder in connection with the deaths of all five men after ordering them out of the taxi, Marine officials said.
Several marines then attacked a home nearby, killing several family members inside, military officials and defense lawyers said. Sergeant Wuterich is charged with killing six people in the house. Lance Corporal Tatum is charged with negligent homicide in the deaths of four people, including an elderly man in a wheelchair in that house.
Thinking they were under fire and believing they were pursuing attackers from the first home, squad members proceeded to a second home, defense lawyers said. Sergeant Wuterich is charged with killing six people in that house: two adults and four children, including three who were 4, 6 and 11 years old.
Lance Corporal Tatum is charged with killing two children in the second house: a 15-year-old boy and a girl who was about 6 years old.
At least two hours later, squad members attacked people in a third home nearby, where one AK-47 was found later, military officials and defense lawyers have said. Sergeant Wuterich is charged with killing the first person in that house. Lance Corporal Sharratt is charged with killing three brothers who rushed to the home to inquire what was happening, military officials have said. They were shot with an M9 service pistol.
In all, Sergeant Wuterich was charged with 13 counts of murder in connection with the deaths of 18 people, who were killed with an M4 service rifle; falsely telling an investigator that the men from the taxi had fired at the convoy; and urging Sergeant De La Cruz to report that those men had been killed by Iraqi Army soldiers at the scene.
Lance Corporal Sharratt was charged with three counts of murder, and Lance Corporal Tatum was charged with murder in the death of two Iraqis, negligent homicide in the deaths of four others, and assault.
The lawyers for all four enlisted men declared their clients’ innocence, arguing in separate statements after the charges that the killings were an unfortunate result of marines properly responding to an insurgent attack in a dangerous area. Sergeant Wuterich and his men “did everything they were supposed to do that day to protect themselves,” said his lawyer, Neal A. Puckett.
In addition to Colonel Chessani, prosecutors charged two captains and a first lieutenant with either covering up or failing to discover and pass along certain facts about the killings. “The reporting of the incident up the chain of command was inaccurate and untimely,” Col. Stewart Navarre said at a news conference at Camp Pendleton.
Capt. Lucas M. McConnell, 31, the Company K commander, was charged with dereliction of duty for willfully failing to ensure a thorough investigation; Capt. Randy W. Stone, 34, a military lawyer for the Third Battalion, was charged with dereliction of duty for failing to investigate suspected violations.
A Marine intelligence officer who was part of a team that photographed the aftermath of the killings, Andrew A. Grayson, 25, was charged with dereliction of duty, failure to ensure a thorough investigation, making a false official statement and obstruction of justice.
The murder charges against the four enlisted marines are punishable by a maximum of life in prison and dishonorable discharge, the Marines said. The charges filed against the four officers carry significantly less potential prison time — two years for Colonel Chessani and Captain Stone; six months for Captain McConnell; and more than 10 years for Lieutenant Grayson — as well as the prospect of dismissal and forfeiture of pay.
Kevin B. McDermott, a civilian lawyer for Captain McConnell, said his client had reported what he knew of the Haditha episode to superiors and was not guilty of any crime. Colonel Chessani, Captain Stone and Lieutenant Grayson could not be reached for comment yesterday afternoon.
None of the eight marines charged entered a plea yesterday. Formal reviews, known as Article 32 hearings, to determine whether the charges warrant court-martial, could begin next month, said Mr. Solis, the teacher of the law of war.
Prosecutors may use the hearings to lay out some of the evidence collected by two military investigations — one into the killings themselves, and a second into the Marines’ investigation of them — and other physical evidence. That evidence is likely to include detailed photographs of the dead taken by Lieutenant Grayson’s intelligence unit after the killings; a videotape made by an Iraqi man shortly after the killings that shows blood-spattered walls inside several homes and statements from children who survived the assault; and a surveillance video from a military drone that flew over the scene after the attack.
Archie Tse contributed reporting.