CAMP PENDLETON, California (AP) — Military prosecutors worked for more than six years to bring Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich to trial on manslaughter charges that could have sent him away to prison for life.
But only weeks after the long-awaited trial started, they offered Wuterich a deal that stopped the proceedings and could mean little to no jail time for the squad leader who ordered his men to "shoot first, ask questions later," resulting in one of the Iraq War's worst attacks on civilians by U.S. troops.
The 31-year-old Marine, who was originally accused of unpremeditated murder, pleaded guilty Monday to negligent dereliction of duty for leading the squad that killed 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha in 2005 during raids after a roadside bomb exploded, killing a fellow Marine and wounding two others.
Wuterich, who was indicted in 19 of the 24 deaths, now faces no more than three months in confinement.
It was a stunning outcome for the last defendant in the case once compared with the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. The seven other Marines initially charged were exonerated or had their cases dropped.
"I was expecting that the American judiciary would sentence this person to life in prison and that he would appear and confess in front of the whole world that he committed this crime, so that America could show itself as democratic and fair," one of the survivors, Awis Fahmi Hussein, told The Associated Press in Haditha.
Military judge Lt. Col. David Jones will hear arguments from both sides Tuesday at Camp Pendleton, Calif., before sentencing Wuterich.
Legal experts said the case was fraught with errors made by investigators and the prosecution that let it drag on for years. The prosecution was also hampered by squad mates who acknowledged they had lied to investigators initially and later testified in exchange for having their cases dropped, bringing into question their credibility.
In addition, Wuterich was seen as taking the fall for senior leaders and more seasoned combat veterans, analysts said. It was his first time in combat when he led the squad on Nov. 19, 2005.
Brian Rooney, an attorney for another former defendant, said cases like Haditha are difficult to prosecute because a military jury is unlikely to question decisions made in combat unless wrongdoing is clear-cut and egregious, like rape.
"If it's a gray area, fog-of-war, you can't put yourself in a Marine's situation where he's legitimately trying to do the best he can," said Rooney, who represented Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the highest-ranking Marine charged in the case. "When you're in a town like Haditha or Fallujah, you've got bad guys trying to kill you and trying to do it in very surreptitious ways. Marines understand it's a crazy environment. You've got to do the best you can with what you've got."
Marine Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Joseph Kloppel said the deal was not a reflection or in any way connected to how the prosecution felt its case was going in the trial.
The Haditha attack is considered among the war's defining moments, further tainting America's reputation when it was already at a low point after the release of photos of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison.
It still fuels anger in Iraq today.
"We wonder about such a sentence issued against the defendant. We called upon US to be fair in passing sentences. Regrettably, we are disappointed about the issuance of such sentences," said Khalid Salman Rasif, a member of the Provincial Council in Haditha, adding he would contact the lawyer for victims' families for an explanation.
Kamil al-Dulaimi, a Sunni lawmaker from the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi, called the plea agreement proof that "Americans still deal with Iraqis without any respect."
"It's just another barbaric act of Americans against Iraqis," al-Dulaimi told The Associated Press. "They spill the blood of Iraqis and get this worthless sentence for the savage crime against innocent civilians."
Wuterich, the father of three children, had faced the possibility of life behind bars when he was charged with nine counts of manslaughter, which will be dropped. Besides now facing a maximum of three months in confinement, he could also lose two-thirds of his pay and see his rank demoted to private when he's sentenced.
.Wuterich, his family and his attorneys declined to comment Monday after he entered the plea. Prosecutors also declined to comment on the plea deal.
During the trial before a jury of combat Marines who served in Iraq, prosecutors argued he lost control after seeing the body of his friend blown apart by the bomb and led his men on a rampage in which they stormed two nearby homes, blasting their way in with gunfire and grenades. Among the dead was a man in a wheelchair.
In the deal, Wuterich acknowledged that his orders misled his men to believe they could shoot without hesitation and not follow the rules of engagement that required troops to positively identify their targets before they raided the homes.
He told the judge that caused "tragic events."
"I think we all understood what we were doing so I probably just should have said nothing," Wuterich told the judge.
He said his orders were based on the guidance of his platoon commander at the time, and that the squad did not take any gunfire during the 45-minute raid.
Many of his squad mates testified that they do not believe to this day that they did anything wrong because they feared insurgents were inside hiding.
Haditha prompted commanders to demand troops be more careful in distinguishing between civilians and combatants.
Former Navy officer David Glazier said the case shows such rules are essential to helping the United States prevail in an armed conflict.
"The reality is that this incident has had significant consequences for the U.S. in Iraq," said Glazier, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "It probably fueled the resistance and so it probably ended up costing additional soldiers and Marines their lives later on."
Associated Press writers Barbara Surk and Mazin Yahya in Baghdad, Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Raquel Dillon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.