It was called the Haditha massacre: 24 Iraqis killed and four Marines charged with murder. But now the case against those Marines appears to be falling apart.
The investigating officer in the case recommended Wednesday that the most serious charges be dropped. If the officer's recommendation is accepted -- and it usually is -- nobody will face murder charges in connection with an incident that left 24 Iraqis dead.
"The evidence is contradictory, the forensic analysis is limited and almost all the witnesses have an obvious bias or prejudice," wrote investigating officer Lt. Col. Paul Ware.
Ware was referring to the case against Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich charged with 17 counts of murder for his role as the squad leader in the Iraqi town of Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005.
"The case against Staff Sgt. Wuterich that he committed murder is simply not strong enough to prove beyond a reasonable doubt," Ware wrote. "What the evidence does point to is that Wuterich failed to exercise due care in his own action or in supervising his Marines."
Ware recommended that Wuterich instead be tried for negligent homicide charges, a crime that carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison. Ware said even that case would be difficult to prove, writing, "I believe the government will fail to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Staff Sgt. Wuterich committed any offenses other than derelection of duty."
Ware reviewed the evidence against Wuterich in an Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a grand jury. The final decision about what charges Wuterich will face will be made by Lt. Gen. James Mattis. In previous cases, Mattis had accepted the investigator's recommendations.
Charges against two other Marines charged with murder in Haditha have already been dropped. And the investigating officer has also recommended that charges be dropped against a third Marine, Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum.
The incident took place on Nov. 19, 2005, after a roadside bomb hit a Marine convoy in Haditha, killing one Marine and wounding two others. Shortly afterward, Wuterich and his men killed 24 Iraqis, including several women and children. Wuterich argued that the Marines were under attack and the killings justified.
Investigators in the case faced serious challenges because the investigation didn't start until several months after the killings. By then, the bodies had been buried and much of the evidence gone.
Although there have been no convictions yet, three senior Marine officers have been censured for the way the incident was handled, including the failure to conduct a prompt investigation.
Meanwhile, Wuterich has filed a defamation suit against Pennsylvania Democrat Rep. John Murtha for saying on national television that the Marines in Haditha committed "cold-blooded murder." Last week, a judge rejected a motion by Murtha to dismiss the case and ordered him to give a sworn deposition to Wuterich's attorney.