Last US marine charged with Haditha massacre on trial

The last US marine linked to the brutal 2005 slaying of civilians in Iraq is finally having his day in court, more than six years after the grim incident occurred.

Marine Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich stepped into a California courtroom on Wednesday to hear attorneys argue his role in a November 2005 massacre in Haditha, Iraq that left 24 Iraqis dead, including women, children and civilians.

Wuterich is the last marine to go on trial for the killings. Eight troops in all were charged with ties to the incident, which has so far yielded one acquittal and six dismissals. Wuterich’s attorneys say that their client can expect the same.

"He's going to be glad to have it over because he knows that he'll be exonerated," lawyer Neal Puckett tells National Public Radio. "The world will know the truth about what happened at Haditha can't be attributed to his criminal behavior, and he just needs to move on with his life."

In 2007, Wuterich admitted on CBS’ 60 Minutes news program that he started shooting at five fleeing Iraqis that took off after US troops ordered them out of their car in the town of Haditha. Puckett argues that the executions were justified since the men took off just after an explosive device was detonated nearby.

"The rules of engagement at the time said that after an IED explosion, if you see a military-age male running, he can be engaged," insists Puckett.

Even if that is the case, it does little to explain why the group of troops then stormed two separate homes and opened fire. No weapons were ever recovered from the homes and in all 24 Iraqis were left dead. In 2007, Wuterich added to 60 Minutes, "My responsibility as a squad leader is to make sure that none of the rest of my guys died. And at that point, we were still on the assault."

Nearly five years later, his attorney questions the atrocities.

“How could they have done it? Why would they have done it?" Puckett asks NPR. "Those are the kinds of questions that I believe will be answered by the witnesses,” who calls the case against his client “weak.”

Even if the charges are dismissed with Wuterich like they were with the rest of the troops, it would surely cause concern given that the marine himself admitted to instructing his fellow troops to “shoot first and ask questions later” during the botched raid. Investigation records even reveal that the marine himself said of the incident, “My marines responded to the threats they faced in the manner that we all had been trained.” That threat, however, was created by unarmed civilians, 11 of whom were women and children.

"It's important because 24 people are dead. It's the greatest number of non-combat victims in a single incident that wasn't a bomb. All armed forces look to their officers to be the adults in the group," law professor Gary Solis tells the Guardian. "We look to them to make sure that things like Haditha don't happen."

Despite the evidence, Solis adds that the years’ worth of time bought by a powerful defense attorney will most likely work in Wuterich’s favor.

"He has a very good defense lawyer, and the marine court prosecution didn't push enough for him to go to trial," adds Solis. "In my opinion, the defense council has won in a major way."

Only one month ago, a reporter for The New York Times came across 400 pages of files that document the interrogations and investigation of the Haditha massacre. The material was thought to have been destroyed by the military, but a copy uncovered at a garbage dump outside of Baghdad surfaced and showed that the details of that November day were much worse than previously imagined. Despite the incident yielding two dozen deaths, including one suffered by a 76-year-old civilian restrained to a wheelchair, Major General Steve Johnson writes in the papers that the death toll was simply the “cost of doing business.”