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Marine charged in deaths of 24 Iraqis makes plea deal

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times –

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Prosecutors and defense attorneys in the court-martial of Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, accused in the killing of 24 unarmed Iraqis in 2005, announced an agreement Monday to settle the case.

Wuterich will plead guilty to a single count of negligent dereliction of duty. Other charges were dropped. No announcement was made on what kind of discharge Wuterich would receive.

The maximum sentence is three months in the brig. That decision will be made by the judge.

With the trial set to resume at 8:30 a.m. PST Monday, the judge, Lt. Col. David Jones, sent jurors home without explanation.

Neal Puckett, one of Wuterich’s lawyers, told the North County Times that the decision to accept an agreement was made by Wuterich and that his client thought it was the “right and honorable thing to do.”

Wuterich hugged his parents and members of a small support group that had attended the trial. The agreement has been approved by Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser.

Wuterich, 31, was accused of manslaughter, assault and dereliction of duty for allegedly leading his squad on a bloody rampage on the morning of Nov. 19, 2005, after a roadside bomb killed one Marine and injured two in the Euphrates River town of Haditha.

When the smoke cleared, Wuterich’s squad had killed 24 Iraqis, including three women and seven children, in a fruitless effort to find the gunmen that the Marines believed was firing on them from a house near the bomb blast.

Wuterich’s case is the last to be settled among the eight Marines accused in the killings: four enlisted Marines accused of firing the fatal shots and four officers accused of not investigating thoroughly.

Six cases were dropped, one officer was acquitted at court-martial.

Wuterich’s court-martial was recessed for a day and a half last week while prosecutors and defense attorneys sought to reach a bargain. After they failed to do so, the court-martial resumed Friday.

Negotiations continued over the weekend.

Although Wuterich, in an unsworn statement at his preliminary hearing, had admitted giving his Marines a “shoot first, ask questions later” order as they stormed two houses, the prosecution’s case was undercut by its own witnesses.

The former platoon commander who had ordered Wuterich to “clear” houses testified that he and his Marines followed their orders and training when they stormed homes by throwing grenades and firing their M-16s.

The hearing officer at Wuterich’s preliminary hearing in 2007 predicted the prosecution would fail because of inconsistent testimony from witnesses and poor forensics.

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