By JULIE WATSON, Associated Press
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (AP) _ The trial of a major Iraq war crimes case resumed Friday with the prosecution showing outtakes of a 2007 interview a Marine squad leader charged with killing unarmed Iraqis gave to “60 Minutes” in which he says he was trained before going into combat to “positively identify your target before you shoot to kill.”
Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich went on to say that he also understood before going into the town of Haditha in 2005 that it was a dangerous place where 23 Marines in the battalion before him were killed and 36 wounded, the most casualties that any company had suffered in the war at that time.
Wuterich is the last defendant in the biggest criminal case to emerge from the Iraq war. He was charged with nine counts of voluntary manslaughter after his squad killed 24 unarmed Iraqis– including women and children– during a series of raids on homes after a roadside bomb exploded, killing a Marine and wounded two others. The original murder prosecution has been reduced to a manslaughter case.
Lt. Col. David Jones convened the court after excusing jurors early Wednesday and told lawyers to explore options, fueling speculation a plea deal was in the works.
Jones advised the all Marine jurors Friday not to speculate on the reasons for the delay in the proceedings. Lawyers have not responded to repeated inquiries asking if there have been discussing a plea bargain.
“There were some negotiations going on and some other legal issues,” Jones told the court before jurors entered. He did not elaborate and told jurors simply there were “some legal issues that needed to be taken care of.”
Jurors have been tasked with trying to decipher whether Wuterich acted appropriately as a squad leader that fateful Nov. 19,2005, day in protecting his Marines after a bomb exploded or whether he went on an angry rampage, disregarding combat rules and leading his men to indiscriminately kill Iraqis.
The jury was to spend much of the day watching three hours of the “60 Minutes” interview given by Wuterich that has been a contentious issue. Legal wrangling between the defense and prosecution over the video, including unaired outtakes, delayed the case from going to trial for years. Prosecutors later won their right to use it and told jurors Friday it is a key part of their case.
In the interview, Wuterich talked about joining the Marine Corps at the age of 17 and choosing to go to Iraq after he re-enlisted because he said he “wouldn’t have felt complete as a Marine” if he didn’t have combat experience.
Before leading his squad into Haditha, Wuterich said he had been taught the rules of combat and even had instructed young Marines heading to Iraq and Afghanistan and “the biggest thing” he said was positive identification.
“We had several briefs on that before we went,” he said.
At the same time, he said he understood as a squad leader in his first combat experience that he needed to protect his men.
“You don’t want to be an easy target,” he said.
Prosecutors have argued Wuterich lost control of himself after seeing his friend blown apart by the bomb.
Wuterich, of Meriden, Conn., is one of eight Marines initially charged. None has been convicted. Wuterich has said he regretted the loss of civilian lives but believed he was following the rules of engagement when he fired on five unarmed Iraqi men in a car near the bombsite and stormed two nearby homes with his squad.
One of his squad mate’s took the stand Friday. Sgt. Humberto Mendoza told jurors that after he helped remove the bodies of women and children who were riddled with bullets in a back bedroom of one of the homes, he felt himself questioning “things” that 2005 night.
Mendoza acknowledged he lied to investigators at first about what happened and wanted to cover it up to protect his squad, but he told jurors he decided it’s time to tell the truth. Defense attorneys have pointed out many squad members had their cases dropped in exchange for testifying for the prosecution.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)