Marine's Iraq killings trial resumes in California

January 20, 2012 - 9:05 PM
Marines Haditha

Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, right, arrives for a court session at Camp Pendleton, flanked by his attorneys Neal Puckett, left, and Haytham Faraj, center, Friday, Jan. 20, 2012, in Camp Pendleton, Calif. Court was scheduled to reconvene Friday in a major Iraq war crimes case after a military judge's move fueled speculation that a plea deal was in the works for a soldier who led the killing of 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (AP) — A major war crimes trial resumed Friday after lawyers worked on unspecified negotiations for two days, with the prosecution showing outtakes of a "60 Minutes" interview in which a Marine squad leader charged with killing unarmed Iraqis says he felt no emotion and "was essentially like a machine."

Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich made the comments in response to a question about whether he felt angry after a roadside bomb killed a fellow Marine.

Wuterich, 31, 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 the bomb exploded.

Prosecutors have argued that Wuterich lost control of himself after seeing his friend blown apart by the bomb. The father of three said after he learned he had killed women and children that day, he could not sleep and was afraid of his dreams. His mother cried Friday as she listened to the tape.

Defense attorneys have said Wuterich did the best he could in the fog of war. He said in the interview that immediately after the explosion, his mind went into another place and his training kicked in.

"I didn't have any emotion at that point," Wuterich said in the interview. "I was essentially like a machine."

Jurors have been tasked with trying to decipher whether Wuterich acted appropriately as a squad leader that fateful Nov. 19, 2005, day: Did he protect his Marines by going after the threat following the explosion, or did he go on a rampage, disregarding combat rules and leading his men to indiscriminately kill Iraqis?

The judge excused the jurors suddenly Wednesday afternoon and told lawyers to explore options, fueling speculation a plea deal was in the works. On Friday, Lt. Col. David Jones convened the court and advised the all-Marine jurors at Camp Pendleton not to speculate on the reasons for the delay. Lawyers did not respond to repeated inquiries asking if there was talk of a plea deal.

"There were some negotiations going on and some other legal issues," Jones told the court before jurors entered.

The jury spent much of Friday watching three hours of Wuterich's 2007 "60 Minutes" interview. 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.

Wuterich told "60 Minutes" he gave the interview because he wanted the truth to be told after being called a "monster, baby killer."

The young squad leader said he had never been in combat before that day but he had been trained to positively identify his targets before shooting to kill.

He described how parts of a Marine Corps Humvee rained down from the sky when the bomb detonated, and he fired on five Iraqi men near a car because the car was the "only thing there," the men started to run, and he feared it was a car bomb or they had triggered the roadside explosion. After that, he and the squad stormed nearby homes believing they were chasing insurgents. The search continued throughout the day. He said he saw some of the Iraqis as threats because they were military-age men and wore black robes.

After the first home, Wuterich said in the interview that he saw women and children had been killed, but he didn't call for his squad to stop firing, saying he believes he could not risk hesitating before acting and that his all that was on his mind was protecting his fellow Marines.

"You can't hesitate to make a decision," Wuterich said in the interview. "Hesitation equals being killed. I lost a fire team. I couldn't afford to lose anymore."

Wuterich also said he understood before going into the town of Haditha in 2005 that it was a dangerous place. Twenty-three Marines in the battalion before him were killed and 36 were wounded, the most casualties that any company had suffered in the war at that time.

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.

One of his squad mates 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.

"Up to this day, I really don't know what happened in the back bedroom," Mendoza said.