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Haditha court-martial delayed as plea bargain talks continue

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times –

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Negotiations continued Thursday into a possible plea bargain in the court-martial of Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, the last of eight defendants in the 2005 killing of 24 Iraqi civilians by Marines from Camp Pendleton.

At issue in the negotiations could be the kind of discharge that Wuterich will receive and what, if any, criminal charges he will plead guilty to.

Wuterich, 31, who was the squad leader during the killings, is charged with manslaughter, assault and dereliction of duty. The dereliction of duty charge carries a lesser-included charge of failure to follow a lawful order.

The charges, if Wuterich were convicted on all counts, could bring a prison sentence of 154 years and a dishonorable discharge.

But the prosecution’s case has been undercut by testimony from two of its own witnesses that seemed to back the defense assertion that Wuterich was merely following orders and training when he led his squad into two “hostile” homes in search of insurgents.

Three other prosecution witnesses underwent stringent cross-examination by defense attorneys who doubted their credibility because of their various accounts of what happened on the morning of Nov. 19, 2005, after a roadside bomb killed one Marine and injured two.

The military judge, Lt. Col. David Jones, abruptly recessed the trial Wednesday afternoon, instructing the attorneys to seek “other options.”

Jones initially set Thursday morning to resume the trial. That was then readjusted Thursday afternoon. Thirty minutes before the trial was to resume Thursday, Jones sent word that the jurors had been told that the next session would be Friday.

Of the eight defendants, six have had their cases dismissed. One was acquitted.

The hearing officer at Wuterich’s preliminary hearing in 2007 said that he doubted Wuterich would be convicted at court-martial. He cited problems that undercut other prosecutions: conflicting testimony from witnesses and poor forensics.

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