CAMP PENDLETON — A Marine staff sergeant was ordered Monday to stand trial on charges stemming from the 2005 killing of 24 Iraqis in the town of Haditha.
Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich is being charged directly with the deaths of several of the Iraqis and indirectly with the other deaths for failing to supervise his Marines as their squad leader.
Under a decision by Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland, commander of the Marine Corps Central Command, Wuterich will be tried on charges of voluntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, dereliction of duty and obstruction of justice. The most serious charge, voluntary manslaughter, could carry a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
Helland's decision reduces the charges Wuterich originally faced. A year ago, he was charged with unpremeditated murder, which carries a life sentence.
Helland on Monday also ordered 1st Lt. Andrew Grayson, a battalion intelligence officer, to stand trial on charges of false official statements and obstruction of justice.
At an Article 32 preliminary hearing for another Marine in the case, a sergeant testified that Grayson ordered him to destroy pictures taken of the Iraqis killed in the Nov. 19, 2005, incident.
These were Helland's first decisions involving the slayings in Haditha since taking command in November from Gen. James N. Mattis. Helland, a helicopter pilot, began his military career as an Army enlisted soldier assigned to special forces in Vietnam.
Two other Marines also face court-martial in the Haditha case: Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the former battalion commander, charged with failing to order a war-crimes investigation; and Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum, charged with involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and aggravated assault.
Lt. Col. Paul Ware, the hearing officer, recommended that the case against Tatum be dropped. Mattis rejected that recommendation.
Ware recommended that the case against Wuterich go to court-martial but predicted that he would be acquitted because of contradictory evidence, lack of credible witnesses and a sloppy forensic investigation.
The killings in Haditha occurred after a roadside bomb exploded beneath a Humvee, killing a Marine and injuring two. Other Marines killed five men outside their car and then 19 other Iraqis, including three women and seven children, while searching three nearby houses for insurgents.
Wuterich, 27, of Meridien, Conn., said in an unsworn statement at his preliminary hearing that he told his Marines "something like, 'Shoot first and ask questions later,' or, 'Don't hesitate to shoot.' "
On Monday, Wuterich's attorneys said they were confident a Marine jury would acquit their client. Neal Puckett, one of the lawyers, said he was disappointed that prosecutors "refuse to give Marines under attack in combat the benefit of the doubt that they were responding according to their training."