CAMP PENDLETON, California (Reuters) - Charges have been dropped against one of eight U.S. Marines accused in the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha and he has been granted immunity for his testimony, the Marine Corps said on Tuesday.
Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz, 24, had been charged with premeditated murder and making a false report in the November 19, 2005, deaths, which damaged U.S. prestige and led to international condemnation.
"Charges against him were dismissed on April 2 after the government balanced his low level of culpability in the alleged crime against the potential value of his testimony," a Marine Corps statement said.
Dela Cruz declined to comment to Reuters when reached by phone. His attorneys could not immediately be reached.
Three Marines remain charged with murder and four others are charged with dereliction of duty for failing to properly report and investigate the shooting deaths of the two dozen Iraqi men, women and children.
Iraqi witnesses say infuriated Marines shot the civilians in their homes to retaliate for the death of a popular comrade, Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, who was ripped in half by a bomb that exploded under a convoy rolling through Haditha, some 60 miles north of Baghdad.
The Marines have since acknowledged that a press release issued the day after the killings, saying that 15 civilians were killed by the roadside bomb and eight insurgents died in a subsequent firefight, was incorrect.
Defense lawyers dispute the Iraqi witnesses' version of events and say the men from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division were engaged in a furious battle in Haditha after the bomb exploded and the civilians may have been killed during the chaos.
Dela Cruz, a Chicago native, saw intense action in his first tour of duty in 2004, including a battle at the An Najaf cemetery.
A Marine Corps News article featured him as one of the unsung heroes of the Iraq war. He enlisted in 2002 with a commitment to the military through 2010.
The seven remaining defendants are entitled to an Article 32 hearing, in which a military judge would decide if there is enough evidence to convene a court-martial.
Marine squad leader Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who led the squad investigated in connection with the incident, was charged with the unpremeditated murder, soliciting another to commit an offense and making a false official statement.
The charges against Wuterich cover the deaths of 12 individual victims and the deaths of six people in a single house. Others charged with murder are Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt and Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum.
(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles)