WASHINGTON A federal judge refused Friday to dismiss a defamation case against Rep. John P. Murtha and ordered the Pennsylvania Democrat to give a sworn deposition about his comments alleging "cold-blooded murder and war crimes" by unnamed soldiers in connection with Iraqi civilian deaths.
A Marine Corps sergeant is suing the 18-term congressman for making the charge, which the soldier claims is false. Murtha, who opposes the Iraq war, made the comment during a May 2006 Capitol Hill news conference in which he predicted that a Pentagon war crimes investigation will show Marines killed dozens of innocent Iraqi civilians in Haditha in 2005.
Murtha's office declined to comment on the ruling. A Vietnam veteran and retired Marine Reserves colonel, Murtha has said his intention was to draw attention to the pressure put on troops in Iraq and efforts to cover up the incident.
The Justice Department wanted the case dismissed because Murtha was acting in his official role as a lawmaker. Assistant U.S. Attorney John F. Henault said the comments were made as part of the debate over the war in Iraq.
U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer said the congressman might be right but said she won't know for sure unless Murtha explains himself. She did not set a date for Murtha's testimony but said she would also require him to turn over documents related to his comments.
"You're writing a very wide road for members of Congress to go to their home districts and say anything they choose about private persons and be able to do so without any liability. Are you sure you want to do that?" Collyer said, adding later, "How far can a congressman go and still be protected?"
Collyer said she was troubled by the idea the lawmakers are immune from lawsuits regardless of what they say to advance their political careers.
Mark S. Zaid, the attorney for the plaintiff, Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, said he wanted Murtha's deposition and limited documents from the congressman, including calendars and documents related to which reporters he spoke to.
Zaid said Murtha was not acting within his congressional duties and was instead trying to embarrass then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, with whom Zaid said Murtha had a personal dispute.
Collyer, who was appointed to the bench by President Bush, said the case wasn't about whether to recall troops from Iraq and she didn't "particularly care" about Murtha's views on the war. She said the law cares only about what Murtha intended when he made the comments.
Charges have been dismissed against four of the eight Marines who were initially charged with murder or failure to investigate the deaths in Haditha. A battalion commander has been recommended for a court-martial; a final decision is pending.The investigating officer overseeing the Haditha case is expected to recommend soon whether Wuterich should stand trial. Wuterich, 27, of Meriden, Conn., is accused of unpremeditated murder in 17 of the killings.
Contributing: Matt Apuzzo