January 24, 2012 / 5:30 PM / 8 years ago

U.S. Marine spared jail time in Iraq killings

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif (Reuters) - A U.S. Marine sergeant accused of leading a 2005 massacre of 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq, was spared jail time on Tuesday for his role the killings that brought international condemnation of American troops.

Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich (R) arrives for a pre-trial hearing with his lawyer Neal A. Puckett and girlfriend Melissa Balcombe at Camp Pendleton, California in this file photo taken March 22, 2010. Wuterich, accused of leading a 2005 massacre of civilians in Haditha, Iraq, pleaded guilty on January 23, 2012 to one count of dereliction of duty, halting court-martial proceedings on manslaughter and other charges. REUTERS/Mike Blake/Files

Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, 31, was sentenced instead to a demotion to the rank of private, the lowest rank in the service, a day after he pleaded guilty to a single count of dereliction of duty.

Wuterich, who could have faced a maximum penalty of three months in confinement, showed no emotion as a military judge pronounced his sentence.

More serious charges of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault had already been dismissed as part of a plea deal, which cut short Wuterich’s court-martial and was decried by a victim’s relative as “an insult to all Iraqis.”

As part of his guilty plea, Wuterich accepted responsibility for providing negligent verbal instructions to the Marines under his command when he told them to “shoot first and ask questions later,” which resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians.

In a pre-sentencing statement, Wuterich said that when he gave that order, “the intent wasn’t that they should shoot civilians. It was that they would not hesitate in the face of the enemy.”

Wuterich was accused of being the ringleader in a series of November 19, 2005, shootings and grenade attacks that left two dozen civilians dead in Haditha, a city west of Baghdad that was then an insurgent hotspot.

The killings were portrayed by Iraqi witnesses and military prosecutors as a massacre of unarmed civilians — men, women and children — carried out by Marines in anger after a member of their unit was killed by a roadside bomb.

Defense lawyers argued the deaths resulted from a fast-moving combat situation in which the Marines believed they were under enemy fire.

The squad leader, who was originally charged with murder in the case, said he realized that his name “will always be associated with a massacre, being a cold-blooded baby killer, an ‘out-of-control monster.’”

But he insisted that he and his fellow Marines behaved honorably under extreme circumstances, and said he “never fired my weapon at any women or children that day.”

OUTRAGE IN IRAQ

Word of the maximum sentence sparked outrage in Iraq, where Ali Badr, a Haditha resident and relative of one of the victims, called it “an insult to all Iraqis” and “solid proof that the Americans don’t respect human rights.”

In his statement on Tuesday, Wuterich, directed an apology to family members of those killed in Iraq, he said, “Words cannot express my sorrow for the loss of your loved ones.” But he said civilians were not singled out for attack.

“The truth is, I don’t believe anyone in my squad ... behaved in any way that was dishonorable or contrary to the highest ideals that we all live by as Marines,” he said, reading calmly and deliberately. “But even with the best intentions, sometimes combat actions can cause tragic results.”

In a final plea for leniency, his civilian defense lawyer, Neal Puckett, said his client “is not evil.”

“He is decent and moral, and his integrity is unfaltering,” Puckett said. “He knows that his Marine Corps career has come to an end.”

Any discharge process faced by Wuterich, a father of three girls, will be separate from his sentencing.

United States Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich arrives for his arraignment at Camp Pendleton, California January 9, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Called to the stand as a character witness on Tuesday, Jeffrey Dinsmore, an intelligence officer with Wuterich’s battalion at the time of the killings, said “insurgent groups ... had complete control over the city (of Haditha) at the time” and the unit had received word that an ambush was likely. He also said insurgents were known to commandeer homes as places to launch attacks and to deliberately use civilians as human shields.

Six of the eight Marines originally accused in the case had their charges dismissed by military judges, and a seventh was cleared of criminal wrongdoing.

Wuterich enlisted in the Marines after his 1998 graduation from high school, where he was an athletic honor-roll student and played with the marching band. He was serving his second tour of duty in Iraq when the Haditha incident occurred.

Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Doina Chiacu

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