WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that Rep. John Murtha cannot be sued for accusing U.S. Marines of murdering Iraqi civilians "in cold blood," remarks that sparked outrage among conservative commentators.
The appeals court in Washington dismissed a defamation lawsuit brought by a Marine who led the squad in the attack. The judges agreed with Murtha that he was immune from the lawsuit because he was acting in his official role as a lawmaker when he made the comments to reporters.
Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich of Meriden, Conn., claimed Murtha damaged his reputation by saying the squad he was leading engaged in "cold-blooded murder and war crimes" in Haditha, Iraq, on Nov. 19, 2005.
At a Capitol Hill news conference in May 2006, Murtha predicted that a Pentagon war crimes investigation would show the Marines killed dozens of innocent Iraqi civilians in Haditha.
Military prosecutors have said two dozen Iraqis, including women and children, were killed in Haditha after one Marine died and two others were wounded by a roadside bomb. Wuterich is charged with voluntary manslaughter and other allegations, the only person still facing charges in the attack.
He has pleaded not guilty. He is accused of ordering his men to clear several houses with grenades and gunfire, leading to the civilian deaths.
Republicans and conservatives accused Murtha, a decorated Vietnam veteran and retired Marine Reserves colonel, of convicting the Marines before the investigation was concluded and fueling enemy attacks in retaliation. GOP challengers tried to use the comments against Murtha in the 2006 and 2008 campaigns, but his constituents overwhelmingly re-elected the congressman who has represented them since 1974.
Murtha, who is opposed to the Iraq war, has said he made the comments to draw attention to the pressure put on troops in Iraq and efforts to cover up the incident. He did not mention Wuterich or any other Marines by name.
A three-judge panel on U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found that Murtha could not be sued under the 1988 Westfall Act, which gives federal employees immunity from lawsuits arising out of acts they undertake in the course of their official duties.
U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer had refused to dismiss the suit last September and ordered Murtha to give a sworn deposition about his comments. The appeals court overturned that order and said the case must be dismissed.
Wuterich's attorney Mark S. Zaid said that despite the appeals court ruling, Murtha should apologize for his statements.
"It is disappointing that the court has placed members of Congress on a special pedestal and granted them carte blanche immunity to defame anyone they choose as part of their official responsibilities without even allowing a victim to expose the actual facts that are known only to the perpetrator," Zaid said.
Murtha's spokesman declined to comment.
Another Marine involved in the Haditha fighting, Justin Sharratt, has filed a slander lawsuit against Murtha in Johnstown, Pa. Although the judge in that case may consider Tuesday's decision and give it weight, it is not binding on that court since it's in a different appeals court circuit.
A former lance corporal, Sharratt sued Murtha in September claiming the lawmaker's remarks not only defamed him, but denied him due process and the right to a fair trial on the charges in military court. Sharratt was initially charged with three counts of premeditated murder, but was exonerated after a full investigation and the military equivalent of a preliminary hearing. Sharratt said it was proven he killed insurgents, not civilians.
Sharratt's attorney, Noah Geary, argued that a jury in Pennsylvania should decide whether Murtha was acting within the scope of his official duties when he called the Marines murderers on cable TV news shows.
"When he's on the House floor he can say anything he wants," Geary said. "But when he goes on Wolf Blitzer and Hannity and Colmes, and all these other outlets, he's outside the scope of his employment when he's making these comments," Geary said.
Associated Press writer Joe Mandak in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.