Lawyer: Lance cpl. responded to real threat
Article 32 begins for Marine accused in Hadithah killings
By Thomas Watkins - The Associated Press
Posted : Monday Jul 16, 2007 19:22:10 EDT

SAN DIEGO — A Marine charged with murdering two girls in a squad action that killed 24 Iraqis in Hadithah believed he was doing what he had been taught by confronting a threat with deadly force, his attorney said Monday.

Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum has acknowledged killing several Iraqis on Nov. 19, 2005, but says he did so because he was responding to a legitimate threat.

“He was taught that deadly force is the proper response to a threat,” attorney Jack Zimmerman said during his opening remarks in a hearing that will determine whether Tatum will be court-martialed on charges of premeditated murder in the Nov. 19, 2005 attack. The Hadithah killings have resulted in the biggest U.S. criminal case involving civilian deaths to come out of the Iraq war.

Tatum is also charged with the negligent homicide of two men, a woman and a child, and with assaulting two men. The Marine, wearing his desert camouflage uniform, spoke only to confirm his identity.

If convicted of murder, he faces life in prison.

After the so-called Article 32 investigation, hearing officer Lt. Col. Paul Ware will assess the evidence against Tatum and recommend whether he should stand trial. The final decision rests with Lt. Gen. James Mattis who is overseeing the case.

Tatum told investigators earlier that he used grenades and gunfire to kill several Iraqis in two houses because he was responding to what he considered a legitimate threat.

“Knowing what I know now, I feel badly about killing Iraqi civilians who may have been innocent,” Tatum told Navy investigators in March 2006. “But I stand fast in my decisions that day, as I reacted to the threats that I perceived at that time.”

Tatum is the second of three enlisted Marines in the case to face a hearing to assess whether his charges should be referred to a court-martial.

The killings occurred after a roadside bomb killed a Marine. In the aftermath of the blast, a Marine squad went house to house looking for insurgents, but instead killed Iraqi civilians, including women and children in bed.

Zimmerman said his client acted appropriately and raided the houses after taking enemy fire from the vicinity. “He certainly didn’t intend to commit any crime,” he said Friday.

Last week, the investigating officer for a squad member charged with murder, Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt, said the government’s evidence was insufficient for a court-martial and recommended dropping charges against Sharratt.

Recommendations are nonbinding; Mattis has the final say.

According to investigative documents, Tatum went with several other Marines to a house, where he said he and Cpl. Hector Salinas threw grenades into a room after hearing what they thought was the metal-on-metal sound of an AK-47 being readied to fire. The squad leader, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich and another Marine, Lance Cpl. Humberto Manuel Mendoza, then fired into the room.

Tatum said he joined in the firing and shot at least four people at a distance of about 20 feet. He said he did not positively identify those he shot as insurgents because he considered the entire house to be hostile.

Mendoza has been given immunity from prosecution and may testify at Tatum’s hearing.

The preliminary hearing for Wuterich, who is charged with murdering 18 Iraqis, is set for Aug. 22.

In another house, Tatum said he may have shot as many as five people. He determined the house was hostile because Wuterich began firing his weapon.

Aside from the three enlisted Marines charged with murder, four officers are charged with dereliction of duty for failing to investigate the deaths. A hearing officer for Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the highest-ranking Marine charged, has recommended a court-martial.