Marine's Iraq killings trial resumes in California

January 21, 2012 - 2:55 AM
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) — Testimony in the trial of a Marine sergeant charged in the biggest criminal case to emerge from the Iraq war resumed Friday with no explanation of what lawyers were negotiating during a two-day delay.

The judge advised jurors not to speculate on the reasons for the delay, and 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," Lt. Col. David Jones told the court before the all-Marine jury entered.

When the trial resumed, prosecutors showed long-disputed outtakes of a 2007 "60 Minutes" interview in which Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich defended the decisions he made Nov. 19, 2005 — the day his squad killed 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Haditha after a roadside bomb hit a Marine convoy, killing one and wounded two others.

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

The 31-year-old was charged with nine counts of voluntary manslaughter and prosecutors have implicated him in 19 of the deaths — including those of women and children. Most of the killings happened during a series of raids on homes after the bomb explosion.

Prosecutors have argued Wuterich lost control of himself after seeing his friend blown apart by the bomb.

When asked in the interview if he felt angry after the bomb hit, Wuterich said he felt no emotion and "was essentially like a machine." He said his mind went to another place and his training kicked in, prompting him to react.

He said he fired on five Iraqi men outside a car near the bombsite because the car was the only one out there at the time and the men started to run. He said he feared it was a car bomb or they had triggered the roadside explosion. After that, he said the squad stormed nearby homes believing they were chasing insurgents. The search continued throughout the day.

The young squad leader said in the "60 Minutes" interview he had never been in combat before that day but he had been trained to positively identify his targets before shooting to kill.

He said he believed his troops were under fire and it was coming from the direction of the homes.

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 could not risk hesitating.

"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."

He said he saw some of the Iraqis as threats because they were military-age men and seemed to be suspicious.

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.

Jurors have been tasked with trying to decipher whether Wuterich acted appropriately as a squad leader that fateful 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?

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, which included unleashing deadly force if there was a hostile act or hostile intent by someone. Prosecutors have questioned why he didn't order his men to stop after finding no weapons or taking no gunfire during the raid on the first home.

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 the second home, he felt himself questioning "things" that 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.