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Marine who blasted houses says he didn't see children, women

'It was dark,' asserts a lance corporal facing charges in the deaths of Iraqis. 'I couldn't make out a lot -- just targets.'

July 25, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — With tears in his eyes and his voice breaking, a Marine lance corporal facing six murder charges told a hearing officer Tuesday that he did not realize there were Iraqi women and children in the line of fire when he began hurling grenades and firing his M-16.

"It was dark," said Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum. "I couldn't make out a lot -- just targets.... I didn't know there were women and children in that house until later."

Tatum, 26, of Edmond, Okla., denied telling a fellow Marine and Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents that he knew the women and children were cowering in a back bedroom but decided to shoot them anyway.

Tatum's three-minute unsworn statement Tuesday came at an Article 32 inquiry, similar to a preliminary hearing, of charges stemming from an incident in Haditha, Iraq, on Nov. 19, 2005.

After hearing closing arguments from prosecutors and defense attorneys today, the hearing officer, Lt. Col. Paul Ware, will make a recommendation to Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis on whether Tatum should face a court-martial.

Tatum was among a group of Marines ordered by their squad leader to search several houses after a roadside bomb killed one Marine and injured two. The Marines killed 24 civilians: five men pulled from a car and 19 family members in three houses.

Tatum is accused of murdering four people in one house, including a young boy, and two in a second house, both young girls. He is also accused of assaulting a boy and girl who survived.

In his statement, Tatum said that if he had known that there were women and children present, "I would have physically stopped everyone in that room from shooting."

Tatum said he attacked the first house because he was told by his squad leader that gunfire was coming from it. In the second house, he heard someone cocking an AK-47, he said.

"I'm not comfortable with the fact that I might have shot a child," Tatum told Ware. "I don't know if my rounds impacted anybody. That's a burden I'll have to bear."

In his questioning of a Marine captain and a staff sergeant about the rules governing the use of deadly force, Ware displayed some of the same skepticism he expressed in recommending that Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt not face a court-martial for his role in the Haditha killings.

In that case, Ware said he was reluctant to second-guess a split-second decision made by a Marine infantryman, even if that decision later is shown to have been mistaken.

"What I'm hearing is a lot of 20-20 hindsight," Ware said.

Mattis has not made his decision about Sharratt; the preliminary hearing for a third Marine, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, is set for August.

--

tony.perry@latimes.com

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