CAMP PENDLETON — A hearing officer recommended Wednesday that Marine Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani be sent to court-martial for dereliction of duty in the failure to investigate the shooting deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in the western town of Haditha.
Chessani, 43, a former infantry battalion commander, is the highest-ranking officer charged in what is the largest war-crime allegation involving U.S. troops in Iraq or Afghanistan. If convicted, he could face three years in prison.
The nonbinding recommendation from the hearing officer, Col. Christopher Conlin, was forwarded to Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of Marine Forces Central Command. Mattis can accept, reject or modify the recommendation.
Chessani's lawyers reacted angrily to the recommendation and said a court-martial would undercut the morale of Marines in Iraq.
Richard Thompson, chief counsel of the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, which has represented Chessani, said that unless Mattis rejected the recommendation, "ultimately there will be no aggressive military left to defend the life of our nation."
Chessani was commander of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, when troops killed 24 civilians, including women and children, on Nov. 19, 2005, after a roadside bomb had killed one Marine and injured two.
Marines killed five young men after ordering them out of their car. Nineteen other civilians were killed in three houses as Marines searched for insurgents.
Chessani has said he believed the deaths were combat-related and caused by insurgents hiding behind civilians. But prosecutors contend he was derelict in failing to launch an investigation or provide detailed information to his superiors.
The military began an investigation only after Time magazine published a story quoting Iraqi witnesses disputing the Marines' version that the civilians were killed by the roadside bomb and in crossfire.
In December, four enlisted Marines were charged with murder, and four officers, including Chessani, were charged with dereliction of duty for not investigating the deaths as possible war crimes.
Later, charges were dropped against Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz in the deaths of the five men pulled from their car.
In exchange, Dela Cruz will be required to testify against the other Marines, particularly Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, also charged in the deaths of the five. Immunity has also been granted to half a dozen Marines to compel testimony.
A hearing officer has recommended that the case against Capt. Randy W. Stone, the battalion's lawyer, not be sent to court-martial.
The hearing officer, Maj. Thomas McCann, criticized Stone but said he was only one part of a massive failure by Marines at the company, battalion, regiment and division levels to investigate properly.
"Information derived directly from Kilo Company reporting was untouched and unquestioned as it made its way up the reporting chain," McCann wrote in his report to Mattis. He suggested that Stone be punished through an administrative proceeding.
On Tuesday, the hearing officer in the case of Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt recommended that murder charges against him be dropped. Lt. Col. Paul Ware faulted the investigation by Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents. He said evidence supported Sharratt's assertion that he fired in self-defense.
Article 32 hearings, akin to preliminary hearings, are pending for Wuterich, the squad leader; Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum; Capt. Lucas M. McConnell, the Kilo Company commander; and 1st Lt. Andrew A. Grayson, an intelligence officer.