SAN DIEGO — A jury of battle-hardened Marines will judge the biggest criminal case against U.S. troops in the Iraq war.
Opening arguments in the trial of Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich will be Monday — more than six years after his Marine squad in 2005 killed 24 Iraqis, including unarmed women and children in the town of Haditha.
Military prosecutors face an uphill battle trying to prove, so many years after the killings, that Wuterich's actions were criminal, legal experts say.
The civilians were killed when his squad used grenades and gunfire to clear several homes in the town after a roadside bomb exploded near a Marine convoy, killing one Marine
Others believe the military jury — made up of Iraq veterans — will be better equipped for the case over a civilian one in which people may not feel comfortable judging what is considered to be an appropriate reaction in the chaos of war. Many of the jurors carried out house-clearing operations like the one Wuterich ordered.
"Military jurors may say look tens of thousands of us went to war zones and didn't kill civilians, but they may also be willing to consider the fact that the individual may have been caught in the fog of war," said former Navy officer David Glazier, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
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. A full investigation didn't begin until a Time magazine reporter inquired about the deaths in January 2006, two months later.
Wuterich is one of eight Marines initially charged. Charges were dropped or dismissed against six, and one was acquitted.
The Camp Pendleton Marine has said he regretted the loss of civilian lives but believed he was operating within military combat rules.
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 before prosecutors ultimately won the right to view them.
Wuterich has completed his service but can't leave the military until his case has been resolved. He has been working a desk job at Camp Pendleton awaiting trial.