CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — A Marine sergeant charged in the biggest criminal case against U.S. troops in the Iraq war made a series of fatal assumptions and lost control of himself when he and his squad killed 24 Iraqis, including unarmed women and children, a military prosecutor said Monday.
Maj. Nicholas Gannon made the accusations to a jury of battle-hardened Marines hearing the case against Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich more than six years after the squad committed the killings in the town of Haditha while clearing homes.
"The evidence will show that none of the victims were a threat," Gannon told jurors in his opening statement.
Prosecutors told the military jury of four officers and four enlisted Marines that Wuterich shot indiscriminately without taking time to identify his targets after a roadside bomb exploded and killed a Marine.
In one house, Gannon said, Wuterich stood at the foot of a bed in a back bedroom, spraying a woman and children with bullets.
Retired Army Col. Gregory Watt, who led the initial probe, testified that Wuterich said he had instructed his squad to shoot first and ask questions later.
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.
In his opening statement, Wuterich's attorney Haytham Faraj told jurors that Navy investigators, under pressure to show the Marine Corps was not covering up the massacre, brutally interrogated the other Marines in the squad for up to 14 hours and offered to drop charges against them if they testified against their squad leader.
"You have a bunch of scared Marines promised immunity who are going to tell you about things that did not happen," Faraj said.
Faraj, a retired Marine, asked jurors to apply their knowledge of the Marine Corps and combat experience when judging the case.
He said Wuterich's battalion had been told by commanders that intelligence indicated the city was becoming a hotbed of insurgents. The day of the killings, he said, Haditha was "abuzz with activity" with troops making more than 20 arrests and engaging in gunfire.
Wuterich's squad moved to clear homes with grenades and gunfire as they were coming under small arms fire after the roadside bomb exploded. He said they believed insurgents were inside the homes.
"We don't believe there was a crime committed here," Faraj said. "It was the unfortunate result of an attempt to do the right thing, but it turned out to be tragic."
Wuterich is charged with voluntary manslaughter in nine of the deaths and with other crimes. He has said he regretted the loss of civilian lives but believed he was operating within military combat rules.
He is the last of the eight Marines initially accused of murder or failure to investigate the killings to face trial. Six had charges dropped or dismissed, and one was acquitted.
Gannon said evidence will show Wuterich "never lost control of his squad ... but he made a series of fatal assumptions and he lost control of himself."
Gannon also referred to excerpts from an interview of Wuterich by "60 Minutes" in which he said he believed none of the Marines with him went against his orders and they did their job.
A full investigation didn't begin until a Time magazine reporter inquired about the deaths in January 2006, two months after the incident.
Watt, who led the initial probe, said Wuterich told him that he had instructed his squad to go into the homes firing, recalling "'I told them to shoot first, ask questions later.'"
"I clearly remember that," Watt testified. "Sgt. Wuterich at the time was very straightforward, very professional and very forthcoming."
Watt added: "He said that on more than one occasion as we talked through the events that transpired."
Legal experts say military prosecutors face an uphill battle trying to prove, so many years after the killings, that Wuterich's actions were criminal.
Others believe the military jury 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.
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.