CAMP PENDLETON — A staff sergeant testified Thursday that he was ordered to destroy grisly pictures of women and children killed by Marines so that the images would not be part of a statement being prepared for an investigative officer and a magazine reporter.
The testimony by Staff Sgt. Justin Laughner, taken under a grant of immunity, is the first evidence suggesting that any Marine officer may have engaged in a coverup in the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in 2005.
Other testimony has suggested that officers made only a superficial review before deciding that the deaths were combat-related and thus no war crimes investigation was required.
At the Article 32 inquiry, similar to a preliminary hearing, for a former battalion commander, Laughner testified hat he felt the order to destroy the pictures, which he said was given by Lt. Andrew Grayson, amounted to obstruction of justice but that he complied and later lied when asked whether any pictures had been taken.
"It was wrong," Laughner said. "Somebody was asking for them [the pictures], and we're not going to give them to them? It's not right, but I didn't say anything."
Although Laughner deleted the pictures from his computer, the images remained on his digital camera and are now part of the criminal case against four officers and three enlisted Marines.
Grayson is charged with dereliction of duty and obstruction of justice in the aftermath of the killings, which occurred in the Iraqi town of Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005. The three other officers -- including the former commander of the Marine battalion involved, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani -- are charged with dereliction of duty for not calling for a war-crimes investigation.
At the inquiry on Chessani's conduct, Laughner said that he had no evidence the lieutenant colonel ever saw the photographs or knew of their existence.
Laughner had taken the pictures in the hours after the killings.
Three months later, when he and Grayson were preparing a statement for high-ranking officers and a Time magazine reporter, Grayson told him to delete the pictures, Laughner testified Thursday.
The statement they prepared reiterated the Marines' official position that the deaths were the result of crossfire after Marines were attacked by insurgents. Laughner and Grayson were part of an intelligence team assigned to work with the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, in Haditha.
Team members interview civilians and, among other things, review the scene of civilian deaths to gather information that can be helpful to Marines.
Laughner arrived several hours after a roadside bomb had killed a Marine from the battalion's Kilo Company. After that blast, Marines killed five young men outside their car and, after being ordered to search for insurgents in nearby houses, killed 19 civilians.
Laughner testified that Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, who led the troops involved in the shootings, told him that the men in the car had "engaged" the Marines with weapons, that Marines encountered an insurgent firing at them in one house, and that AK-47s were found in the houses. Prosecutors say all three assertions are lies.
Laughner said Wuterich did not tell him that the Marines had killed women and children in the houses. But when Laughner went to the houses to look for evidence of insurgents, he found instead a young girl who was in hysterics.
He said that his interpreter told him what the girl was screaming: "She said the Marines came into her house and killed her family," Laughner said.