CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — The lone Marine to face sentencing for the killing of two dozen unarmed Iraqis in one of the Iraq War's defining moments walked away with no jail time Tuesday after defending his squad's storming of the homes of Haditha as a necessary act "to keep the rest of my Marines alive."
Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich's sentence ends a six-year prosecution for the 2005 attack that failed to win any manslaughter convictions. Eight Marines were initially charged; one was acquitted and six others had their cases dropped.
Wuterich, who admitted ordering his squad to "shoot first, ask questions later" after a roadside bomb killed a fellow Marine, ended his manslaughter trial by pleading guilty on Monday to a single count of negligent dereliction of duty.
The deal that dropped nine counts of manslaughter sparked outrage in the besieged Iraqi town and claims that the U.S. didn't hold the military accountable.
"I was expecting that the American judiciary would sentence this person to life in prison and that he would appear and confess in front of the whole world that he committed this crime, so that America could show itself as democratic and fair," said survivor Awis Fahmi Hussein, showing his scars from a bullet wound to the back.
Military judge Lt. Col. David Jones recommended three months of confinement, which prosecutors said Wuterich deserved; but after learning the terms governing the plea agreement, Jones said the deal prevented any jail time for the Marine.
Jones recommended that the sergeant's rank be reduced to private, but not to dock his pay because the divorced father has sole custody of his three daughters. The rank reduction has to be approved by a Marine general, who already signed off on the plea deal.
Wuterich read a statement apologizing to the victims' families and said he never fired on or intended to harm innocent women and children. But he said his plea shouldn't be seen as a statement that he believes his squad dishonored their country.
"When my Marines and I cleared those houses that day, I responded to what I perceived as a threat and my intention was to eliminate that threat in order to keep the rest of my Marines alive," he said. "So when I told my team to shoot first and ask questions later, the intent wasn't that they would shoot civilians, it was that they would not hesitate in the face of the enemy."
"The truth is I never fired my weapon at any women or children that day," Wuterich told Jones.
The contention by Wuterich, 31, of Meriden, Conn., contradicts prosecutors and counters testimony from a former squad mate who said he joined Wuterich in firing in a dark back bedroom where a woman and children were killed.
Prosecutors argued that Wuterich's knee-jerk reaction of sending the squad to assault nearby homes without positively identifying a threat went against his training and caused needless deaths of 10 women and children.
"That is a horrific result from that derelict order of shooting first, ask questions later," said Lt. Col. Sean Sullivan, who also asked the judge to reduce Wuterich's rank and require forfeiture of two-thirds of his pay.
Defense attorney Neal Puckett said Wuterich has been falsely labeled a killer who carried out a massacre in Iraq and insisted he only intended to protect his Marines in an "honorable and noble" act.
"The appropriate punishment in this case, your honor, is no punishment," Puckett said.
Wuterich directly addressed family members of the Iraqi victims, saying there were no words to ease their pain.
"I wish to assure you that on that day, it was never my intention to harm you or your families. I know that you are the real victims of Nov. 19, 2005," he said.
Military prosecutors worked for more than six years to bring Wuterich to trial on manslaughter charges that could have sent him away to prison for life. But only weeks after the long-awaited trial started, they offered Wuterich the deal that stopped the proceedings and dropped the nine counts of manslaughter.
It was a stunning outcome for the last defendant in the case once compared with the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
The Haditha attack is 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.
Legal experts said the case was fraught with errors made by investigators and the prosecution that let it drag on for years. The prosecution was also hampered by the credibility of witnesses who acknowledged they initially lied and later testified in exchange for having their cases dropped.
Wuterich was also seen as taking the fall for senior leaders and more seasoned combat veterans, analysts said. It was his first time in combat.
Brian Rooney, an attorney who represented a former defendant, said cases like Haditha are difficult to prosecute because a military jury is unlikely to question decisions made in combat unless wrongdoing is clear-cut and egregious, like rape.
"If it's a gray area, fog-of-war, you can't put yourself in a Marine's situation where he's legitimately trying to do the best he can," said Rooney, who represented Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the highest-ranking Marine charged in the case. "When you're in a town like Haditha or Fallujah, you've got bad guys trying to kill you and trying to do it in very surreptitious ways."
During the trial before a jury of combat Marines who served in Iraq, prosecutors argued Wuterich lost control after seeing the body of his friend blown apart by the bomb and led his men on a rampage, blasting their way in with gunfire and grenades. Among the dead was a man in a wheelchair.
Wuterich said his orders were based on the guidance of his platoon commander at the time. He has acknowledged the squad did not take any gunfire during the 45-minute raid.
Many of his squad mates testified that they do not believe to this day that they did anything wrong because they feared insurgents were inside hiding.
Haditha prompted commanders to demand troops be more careful in distinguishing between civilians and combatants.
Associated Press writers Barbara Surk and Mazin Yahya in Baghdad, Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Raquel Dillon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.