Friday, August 10, 2007

Gen. clears 2 Marines in Hadithah deaths

By Gidget Fuentes - Staff writer
Posted : Friday Aug 10, 2007 7:50:27 EDT

OCEANSIDE, Calif. — A top Marine commander dropped all charges Thursday against a lance corporal charged with the 2005 murder of Iraqis in Hadithah.

Lt. Gen. Jim Mattis, head of Marine Corps Forces-Central Command, made his decision to dismiss all charges against Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt after meeting with Sharratt and his attorneys, and cited “this morally bruising environment” in his decision.

Mattis also dismissed charges on Thursday against Capt. Randy Stone, a lawyer who was serving as the infantry battalion’s staff judge advocate at the time of the Hadithah incident.

Sharratt’s defense attorneys said they were elated and relieved at the decision.

Theresa Sharratt, the Marine’s mother, got the call at midnight Wednesday from his attorneys, and her son called her in the morning to relay the news: “It’s over, Mom.”

“All of our prayers were answered,” she said by telephone from the family home in Pennsylvania.

“Justin always made us feel like they never did anything wrong,” she added. “He was so adamant about that.”

His attorneys, Gary Myers and James Culp, called it “an event of historic proportions.”

“In his dismissal of the charges against Lance Corporal Sharratt, General Mattis has accurately and eloquently described the extreme demands placed upon combat Marines and soldiers in insurgency warfare. The dismissal of charges demonstrates that this convening authority fully understands the complex and difficult circumstances his Marines face in Iraq and Afghanistan,” they said in a statement. “About the complexity of this conflict and Lance Corporal Sharratt’s innocence, we can add nothing to the powerful words of General Mattis.”

Sharratt is one of four enlisted Marines originally charged with murder in connection with the deaths of about two dozen civilians in Hadithah following a Nov. 19, 2005, roadside bomb attack that killed one leatherneck and wounded two others from their squad with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines.

Four officers with the battalion, including the commander, also were charged with dereliction of duty and failing to follow orders for allegedly ignoring or not investigating allegations that squad members murdered the civilians.

An investigating officer recommended that all charges against Sharratt be dropped. Mattis, in a statement issued Thursday morning, said that he reviewed the investigations and evidence and concurred.

Sharratt, he wrote, “has served as a Marine infantryman in Iraq where our nation is fighting a shadowy enemy who hides among the innocent people, does not comply with any aspect of the law of war, and routinely targets and intentionally draws fire toward civilians.

“The challenges of this combat environment put extreme pressures on our Marines,” Mattis wrote. “Notwithstanding, operational, moral and legal imperatives demand that we Marines stay true to our own standards and maintain compliance with the law of war in this morally bruising environment.

“With the dismissal of these charges, LCpl Sharratt may fairly conclude that he did his best to live up to the standards, followed by U.S. fighting men throughout our many wars, in the face of life or death decisions made in a matter of seconds in combat,” Mattis added. “And as he has always remained cloaked in the presumption of innocence, with this dismissal of charges, he remains in the eyes of the law — and in my eyes — innocent.”

Sharratt’s civilian defense attorneys said they are satisfied that Mattis put a lot of time and thought into his decision. “I have never seen or experienced a convening authority who is so engaged with the process,” Culp and Myers said.

Sharratt, who has completed his enlistment, had reported to work at 7:15 a.m. and learned of the decision in a letter delivered to him and his military attorney, Lt. Col. Brian Cosgrove, they said.

Stone was charged with two counts of negligent dereliction of duty and one count of violating a lawful order for allegedly failing to fully investigate the allegations of civilian deaths.

Mattis, in making his decision, agreed with the recommendation of the Article 32 investigator that the case against Stone doesn’t warrant a court-martial. “I am aware of the line that separates the merely remiss from the clearly criminal,” Mattis said in a statement also issued Thursday, “and I do not believe that any mistakes Captain Stone made with respect to the incident rise to the level of criminal behavior.”

Stone was a judge advocate who deployed to Iraq and was assigned to 3/1 at the time.

Mattis, in the statement, noted the officer’s “enthusiasm” to take on challenging duties and “attentiveness” to training the Marines in the law of war and rules of engagement “and willingness to share their hardship to better appreciate the challenges facing them are notable.”

Stone, he noted, patrolled with the men and “he helped them embrace the imperative of ethical behavior in combat.”

“Stone and his fellow Marines served in the most ethically challenging combat environment in the world,” Mattis added. “Nonetheless, Marines are expected to withstand the extreme and fatiguing pressures inherent in counterinsurgency operations, protecting the innocent, while tirelessly fighting the enemy with relentless vigor. I have no doubt that he now understands the absolute necessity for objective inquiry into the combat actions of our Marines in such an environment, especially when innocent lives are lost.”

In his decision, Mattis supported the continuation of Stone’s career as a judge advocate, noting “it is incumbent on him to ensure that the lessons he has learned provide guidance for future judge advocates who may serve under similar circumstances in an infantry battalion in combat.”

“I have impressed upon Captain Stone the fact that the Marine Corps’ investigation into the Haditha [sic] incident has been driven solely by the interests of justice,” Mattis added.

Mattis, in issuing his decisions, acknowledged the difficulties that infantrymen face in a combat zone, particularly in a counterinsurgency environment. “The experience of combat is difficult to understand intellectually and very difficult to appreciate emotionally,” he wrote, citing the writings of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., an infantryman during the Civil War, who described war as an “incommunicable experience.”

Holmes, Mattis wrote, “has also noted elsewhere that ‘detached reflection cannot be demanded in the face of an uplifted knife.’ Marines have a well earned reputation for remaining cool in the face of enemies brandishing much more than knives. The brutal reality that Justice Holmes described is experienced each day in Iraq, where Marines willingly put themselves at great risk to protect innocent civilians.

“Where the enemy disregards any attempt to comply with ethical norms of warfare, we exercise discipline and restraint to protect the innocent caught on the battlefield,” he added. “Our way is right, but it is also difficult.”

Several months ago, Mattis dropped all charges against one of the enlisted Marines, Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz.

Five cases are pending:

* Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the battalion commander, charged with violating a lawful order and two counts of dereliction of duty for failing to thoroughly investigate the allegations of war crimes. The Article 32 preliminary hearing has been completed and is awaiting a decision by Mattis, Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, a MarCent spokesman, said on Thursday.

* Capt. Lucas McConnell, Kilo Company commander, charged with two counts of dereliction of duty. No date has been set yet for his Article 32 hearing, Gibson said.

* 1st Lt. Andrew Grayson, intelligence officer, charged with two counts of dereliction of duty, obstructing justice and making a false official statement. The Article 32 hearing is pending.

* Sgt. Frank Wuterich, squad leader, charged with 13 counts of unpremeditated murder, two counts of soliciting others to lie and one count of making a false statement. His Article 32 hearing is scheduled to begin Aug. 22 at Camp Pendleton, Gibson said.

* Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum, charged with assault, two counts of unpremeditated murder, four counts of negligent homicide and assault. The Article 32 hearing was held in July, and a decision by Mattis is pending.

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