CAMP PENDLETON — Military prosecutors are building their case in the killing of two dozen civilians in Haditha, Iraq -- considered the war's most serious abuse incident involving Marines -- by granting immunity to compel testimony.
Marine officials announced Tuesday that charges against Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz, 24, of Chicago had been dropped in exchange for his testimony.
Now prosecutors have provided immunity to an officer who arrived at the scene after a Marine was killed but before other Marines stormed three houses, killing the occupants. The officer, who has not been publicly identified, has not been charged. With the grant of immunity, he is compelled to testify.
Prosecutors are arranging witnesses in particular against Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, 26, the squad leader. As the senior enlisted man, he was responsible for giving orders.
In December, four enlisted Marines were charged with murder in the deaths of 24 people, including women and children, in the insurgent stronghold of Haditha. Four officers were charged with not investigating the deaths thoroughly.
The prosecutors' strategy is similar to that used in a case involving a killing in Hamandiya, Iraq, in which a Navy corpsman and several enlisted Marines were given lenient sentences on reduced charges in exchange for testimony against Marines considered more culpable in the execution-style slaying of an Iraqi.
Prosecutors now will not have to rely solely on Iraqi witnesses or reports by agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
"When you're dealing with a Marine jury, testimony from other Marines is the most powerful kind of testimony. Nothing else compares," said a lawyer familiar with the cases.
Prosecutors allege that the Marines went on a rampage Nov. 19, 2005, after a roadside bomb exploded beneath a Humvee, killing one Marine and injuring two. Officers initially reported that the Iraqis died in a firefight between Marines and insurgents.
In an interview with the CBS program "60 Minutes," Wuterich said he fatally shot five young men near a taxi and, although he was sorry for the killing of civilians, thought the storming of the houses by throwing in grenades and entering with a burst of gunfire was appropriate.
"We cleared these houses the way they were supposed to be cleared," said Wuterich, who is charged with 13 counts of unpremeditated murder.