January 24, 2012 in Nation/World

Marine takes plea deal in Iraqi deaths

Minor charge ends manslaughter case
Julie Watson Associated Press

(Full-size photo)

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – A Marine sergeant who told his troops to “shoot first, ask questions later” in a raid that killed unarmed Iraqi women, children and elderly pleaded guilty Monday in a deal that will carry no more than three months confinement and end the largest and longest-running criminal case against U.S. troops from the Iraq War.

The agreement marked a stunning and muted end to the case once described as the Iraq War’s version of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. The government failed to get one manslaughter conviction in the case that implicated eight Marines in the deaths of 24 Iraqis in the town of Haditha in 2005.

Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 31, of Meriden, Conn., who was originally accused of unpremeditated murder, pleaded guilty to negligent dereliction of duty for leading his troops to disregard rules of combat when they raided homes after a roadside bomb exploded near their convoy, killing one Marine and wounding two others.

The Haditha incident 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.

“The case doesn’t end with a bang, it ends with a whimper and a pretty weak whimper at that,” said Gary Solis, a former Marine Corps prosecutor and judge. “When you have 24 dead bodies and you get dereliction of duty, that’s pretty good defense work.”

Wuterich, his family and his attorneys declined to comment after he entered the plea that halted his manslaughter trial at Camp Pendleton before a jury of combat Marines who served in Iraq.

Prosecutors also declined to comment on the plea deal. Marine Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Joseph Kloppel said the deal was not a reflection or in any way connected to how the prosecution felt their case was going in the trial.

Wuterich, the father of three children, had faced the possibility of life behind bars when he was charged with nine counts of manslaughter, among other charges.

The prosecution implicated him in 19 of the 24 deaths.

The manslaughter charges will be dropped now that Wuterich has pleaded guilty to the minor dereliction of duty charge. He faces a maximum of three months in confinement, two-thirds forfeiture of pay and a rank demotion to private. Both sides will present arguments today during a sentencing hearing. Seven other Marines were acquitted or had charges dismissed.

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