Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Judge gives Murtha pass on Haditha testimony
Congressman called Marines 'murderers' before investigation was finished
Posted: April 15, 2008
10:49 pm Eastern

A military judge has ruled that former Marine Commandant Michael Hagee will be required to testify about his conversations with U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., regarding the firefight in Haditha, Iraq, that left one Marine and 15 civilians dead, as well as 13 other Marines injured. But the judge granted Murtha himself a pass on testifying in the case.

The ruling came today in a military court hearing in California where defense attorneys had wanted that testimony not only from Hagee but Murtha himself and several other military leaders.

The Thomas More Law Center, which is defending Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani on charges stemming from that attack by insurgents on U.S. Marines, is alleging unlawful command influence in the case, as well as a series of six more motions.

Court precedents on unlawful command influence require a military judge to avoid even the "appearance of this evil" in a courtroom, the law firm said as it prepared to begin arguments today.

The witnesses will be able to "show the dirty hand of unlawful command influence – considered by the courts as the 'mortal enemy of military justice,'" the law firm said.

Law Center attorneys Rob Muise and Brian Rooney, as well as detailed military defense counsel Lt. Col. John Shelbourne, USMC, and Capt. Jeff King, USMC, are arguing for their motions before military judge Col. Stephen Folsom, USMC.

"It was obvious from the outset that Lt. Col. Chessani was being made a political scapegoat," said Richard Thompson, chief counsel for the law center. "Even before the investigation was completed, Congressman Murtha publicly accused the Haditha Marines of 'cold-blooded murder' and officers of covering it up. Murtha claimed he got his information from the highest level of the military."

The pending criminal charges against Chessani followed a house-to-house, room-by-room firefight involving four of Chessani's enlisted Marines on Nov. 19, 2005, after they were ambushed by insurgents in Haditha.

"Even though Lt. Col. Chessani immediately reported the events of that day to his superiors, including the death of 15 noncombatant civilians caught in the crossfire, nobody in Lt. Col. Chessani's chain of command, all the way to Gen. Casey, showed any interest in conducting an investigation because they understood this to be combat action – not a law of war violation," the law firm said.

But months later, a "Time" magazine story "instigated by an insurgent propaganda agent, caused Pentagon officials to order the largest investigation in the history of the Naval Criminal Investigative Services," the firm said.

Chessani's defense team notes in May 2006, months before the investigation was finished. Murtha held a news conference and confirmed he'd been told by the highest levels of the Marine Corps there was no firefight and Marines "killed innocent civilians in cold blood."

"All the information I get, it comes from the commanders, it comes from people who know what they're talking about," the law firm said he confirmed the next day. "It's much worse than reported in Time magazine."

He also told a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer Gen. Michael Hagee had given him the information on which he based his allegations. That was the basis for Folsom's decision to not require Murtha's testimony, attorneys said, since he already had released in the press the information he had and his sources.

It was statements such as Murtha's that conflicted with the results of military's own investigations. The first, done by Army Col. G.A. Watt found "there are no indications that [Coalition Forces] intentionally targeted, engaged, and killed noncombatants." Later, Army Maj. Gen. Aldon Bargewell found no cover-up, the Thomas More firm said.

But when Watt's results were forwarded to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, one Pentagon official recalled, "Rumsfeld told aides that the case promised to be a major problem. He called it 'really, really bad – as bad or worse than Abu Ghraib."

Other sources, including Gen. Hagee, have told defense counsel Rumsfeld then set up an oversight group to keep tabs on prosecutions for the Haditha case.

If the issue of command influence is indicated to be present, then prosecutors would have to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defense arguments are untrue and the proceedings could be kept clean of that influence.

WND reported just days ago when charges against a fifth Marine – out of eight total defendants – were dropped.

Charges already had been reduced against Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum from murder to involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and aggravated assault.

But then military announced, just before his court martial was scheduled to begin, that even those charges had been dismissed "in order to continue to pursue the truth-seeking process into the Haditha incident," according to a statement from Camp Pendleton, near San Diego.

Four Marines originally were accused of murder and four officers accused of covering up the incident.

Chessani is accused of "dereliction of duty" and "orders" violations because at the time he was commander of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, one of the most decorated battalions in the nation's history.

Charges against Capts. Randy Stone and Lucas McConnell earlier were dismissed, as were counts against Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz and Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt.

Remaining cases include counts against Cpl. Andrew Grayson and Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich as well as Chessani.

"These prosecutions will become a scandal of historic proportions unless terminated by independently minded and virtuous military judges," Thompson said.