CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — The lone Marine convicted in his squad's killing of two dozen unarmed civilians in one of the Iraq War's defining moments escaped jail time Tuesday after defending his order to raid homes in Haditha as a necessary act "to keep the rest of my Marines alive."
The sentencing of Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich ends a six-year prosecution for the 2005 attack that failed to win any manslaughter convictions. Eight Marines were initially charged. One was acquitted, and six others had their cases dropped.
Wuterich admitted he ordered is squad to "shoot first, ask questions later" after a roadside bomb killed a fellow Marine as part of a deal that ended his manslaughter trial with a guilty plea Monday to a single count of negligent dereliction of duty.
The deal that dropped nine counts of manslaughter sparked outrage in the besieged Iraqi town and claims that the U.S. didn't hold the military accountable.
"I was expecting that the American judiciary would sentence this person to life in prison and that he would appear and confess in front of the whole world that he committed this crime, so that America could show itself as democratic and fair," said survivor Awis Fahmi Hussein, showing his scars from a bullet wound to the back.
The military judge, Lt. Col. David Jones, initially recommended the maximum sentence of three months for Wuterich, saying, "It's difficult for the court to fathom negligent dereliction of duty worse than the facts in this case."
But after opening an envelope to look at the terms of the plea agreement, as is procedure in military court, Jones announced the deal prevented any jail time for the Marine.
"That's very good for you obviously," Jones told Wuterich.
Jones did recommend that the sergeant's rank be reduced to private, which would dock his pay, but he decided not to exercise his option to cut it by as much as two-thirds because the divorced father has sole custody of his three daughters. The rank reduction has to be approved by a Marine general who already signed off on the plea deal.
Wuterich read a statement apologizing to the victims' families and said he never fired on or intended to harm innocent women and children. But he said his plea shouldn't be seen as a statement that he believes his squad dishonored their country.
"When my Marines and I cleared those houses that day, I responded to what I perceived as a threat, and my intention was to eliminate that threat in order to keep the rest of my Marines alive," he said. "So when I told my team to shoot first and ask questions later, the intent wasn't that they would shoot civilians, it was that they would not hesitate in the face of the enemy."
"The truth is I never fired my weapon at any women or children that day," Wuterich later told Jones.
The contention by Wuterich, 31, of Meriden, Conn., contradicts prosecutors and counters testimony from a former squad mate who said he joined Wuterich in firing in a dark back bedroom where a woman and children were killed.
Prosecutors argued that Wuterich's knee-jerk reaction of sending the squad to assault nearby homes without positively identifying a threat went against his training and caused needless deaths of 10 women and children.
"That is a horrific result from that derelict order of `shoot first, ask questions later,'" said Lt. Col. Sean Sullivan.
Defense attorney Neal Puckett said Wuterich has been falsely labeled a killer who carried out a massacre in Iraq and insisted he only intended to protect his Marines in an "honorable and noble" act.
"The appropriate punishment in this case, your honor, is no punishment," Puckett said.
Wuterich directly addressed family members of the Iraqi victims, saying there were no words to ease their pain.
"I wish to assure you that on that day, it was never my intention to harm you or your families. I know that you are the real victims of Nov. 19, 2005," he said.
Wuterich, who hugged his parents after he spoke, declined comment on Jones' decision. Puckett and his co-counsel, Haytham Faraj, said in a statement, "We believe justice prevailed for Staff Sgt. Wuterich and in turn, he wishes it was within his power to impart the same measure of justice to the families of the victims of Haditha."
Military prosecutors worked for more than six years to bring Wuterich to trial on manslaughter charges that could have sent him away to prison for life. But only weeks after the long-awaited trial started, they offered Wuterich the deal.
It was a stunning outcome for the last defendant in the case once compared with the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
The Haditha attack is considered among the war's defining moments, further tainting America's reputation when it was already at a low point after the release of photos of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison.
During the trial before a jury of combat Marines who served in Iraq, prosecutors argued Wuterich lost control after seeing his friend blown apart by the bomb and led his men on a rampage, blasting their way in with gunfire and grenades. Among the dead was a man in a wheelchair.
Faraj said the government was working on false notions and the deal was reached last week when prosecutors recognized their case was falling apart with contradictory testimony from witnesses who had lied to investigators. Many of the squad members had their cases dropped in exchange for testifying. Prosecutors have declined to comment.
Lt. Col. Joseph Kloppel, a Marine Corps spokesman, said the plea deal was the result of mutual negotiations and does not reflect how the case was going for the prosecution. He said the government investigated and prosecuted the case as it should have.
Wuterich was also seen as taking the fall for senior leaders and more seasoned combat veterans in his squad, analysts said. It was his first time in combat.
Brian Rooney, an attorney who represented a former defendant, said cases like Haditha are difficult to prosecute because a military jury is unlikely to question decisions made in combat unless wrongdoing is clear-cut and egregious, like rape.
"If it's a gray area, fog-of-war, you can't put yourself in a Marine's situation where he's legitimately trying to do the best he can," said Rooney, who represented Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the highest-ranking Marine charged in the case.
Many of his squad mates testified that they do not believe to this day that they did anything wrong because they feared insurgents were inside hiding.
Wuterich plans to leave the Marine Corps and start a new career in information technology. His lawyers said they plan to petition for clemency.
Associated Press writers Barbara Surk and Mazin Yahya in Baghdad, Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Raquel Dillon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.