SAN DIEGO — More than six years after Frank Wuterich led a squad that killed 24 Iraqis, including women and children, the 31-year-old Marine staff sergeant will stand trial on Friday.
Wuterich is the last defendant in the biggest and lengthiest criminal case against U.S. troops to arise from the Iraq War. The killings in Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005, are considered among the war's defining moments, further tainting America's reputation when it was already at a low point after the release of photos of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison.
Wuterich is one of eight Marines initially charged. None has been convicted.
The Camp Pendleton Marine has said he regretted the loss of civilian lives but believed he was operating within military combat rules when he ordered his men to clear several homes in the town after a roadside bomb exploded in November 2005, killing one Marine and wounding two others. Marines in the unit have said they were under gunfire at the time. They tossed grenades in the homes and peppered them with gunfire.
His lawyer, Neal Puckett, said Wuterich, 31, is confident the all-military jury will acquit him.
Wuterich declined to be interviewed before the trial, and military prosecutors declined to comment.
Jury selection will take place Thursday and opening arguments are slated for Friday before the military jury at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, after years of delays.
The late U.S. Rep. John Murtha, a former Marine and decorated Vietnam War veteran, compared the killings to the 1968 My Lai massacre, when American servicemen killed as many as 504 Vietnamese villagers. Marines, including Wuterich, filed lawsuits alleging that the comments damaged their reputations.
The comparison started a debate over whether troops were doing what they were trained to do or getting revenge for the death of a comrade.
The case was a main reason behind the country's demands that U.S. troops be subject to its laws if its forces remained there after the war ended in December.
Those demands turned out to be the deal-breaker that led to the withdrawal of all American forces.
Legal experts say military prosecutors face an uphill battle trying to prove, so many years after the killings, that Wuterich's actions were criminal and not the unfortunate result of being caught in the chaos of war.
"Memories fade, evidence fades or is lost, so that is bound to benefit the accused and that's too bad, because the trial should not be one that favors one side or other," Gary Solis, a former Marine Corps prosecutor and judge who teaches law of war at Georgetown University Law Center.
Disputes — including over whether a military court should order CBS News to hand over unaired outtakes of a 2007 interview Wuterich gave to "60 minutes" — stalled the case for years. In 2009, a military appeals court ordered some unaired portions be turned over to prosecutors.
The case also suffered from a delay in gathering evidence. Immediately after the killings, investigators missed chances to collect evidence from the scene and speak with witnesses while their memories were fresh, legal experts say.
Last year, defense attorneys filed a motion asking the case to be thrown out because one of Wuterich's military lawyers has since retired from the Marine Corps. The judge ruled against the motion.
After the roadside bomb rocked the Marine convoy, Wuterich and a squad member were accused of shooting five men by a car at the scene. Investigators say Wuterich then ordered his men to clear several houses with grenades and gunfire. The bodies of women and children, including toddlers, were found afterward.
A full investigation didn't begin until a Time magazine reporter inquired about the deaths in January 2006, two months later.
Six squad members have had charges dropped or dismissed, and one was acquitted.
Wuterich's charges were later reduced to voluntary manslaughter in nine of the 24 deaths and other crimes. Wuterich also has been charged with aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, dereliction of duty and obstruction of justice.
Since his ordeal began, Wuterich has gotten divorced and gained custody of his three school-age daughters, who live with him in nearby Temecula. He works a desk job at Camp Pendleton's 1st Marine Division headquarters.
He has completed his service but can't leave the military until his case has been resolved.