Anger Over Marine's Light Sentence for 24 Killings

Legal experts compare Haditha killings to My Lai massacre in Vietnam.

Jan. 25, 2011 — -- A light sentence handed down to U.S. Marine Frank Wuterich for his guilty plea in the killings of 24 Iraqi civilians in 2005 has shocked and angered Iraqis, military experts and Internet users.

"It's upsetting," said Basam Radha, an Iraqi-American activist. "These forces are out there trying to liberate us, spending billions of dollars of taxpayers' money to liberate us, and these people are doing exactly the opposite thing."

Wuterich, 31, the leader of a squad in the Iraq war, has admitted to giving an order that resulted in the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians, including women and children, in Haditha, Iraq. The incident occurred after a roadside bomb went off, killing a fellow Marine, and Wuterich ordered his soldiers "to shoot first, ask questions later" as they searched nearby houses.

Wuterich pleaded guilty Monday to dereliction, a charge reduced from the voluntary and involuntary manslaughter charges he originally faced. At a sentencing Tuesday, he received a demotion, but was not sentenced to any jail time for the killings.

While in court, Wuterich apologized to the victims' families and tried to explain how the massacre occurred.

"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," Wuterich 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."

Wuterich was the last of eight Marines charged in the incident to be sentenced. Six had the charges against them dropped, and one was acquitted.

The lack of punishment for the Marines involved was troubling for people who saw the result as unjust.

Said Ron Meister, a former Navy JAG officer and military judge who is now the chairman of the National Institute for Military Justice, "If you contrast individuals who the U.S. has incarcerated under very harsh conditions in places like Guantanamo for close to a decade for just training with terrorist groups but not actually committing murders, and look at where they end up and conditions they serve them, and contrast them with a U.S. soldier who was responsible for the killing of over 20 people, it's hard to be pleased with the comparison."

Internet users seemed to agree, taking to Twitter to call Wuterich a "cold-blooded baby killer," and classify the sentence as "government terrorism."

Twitter user Taji Mustafa wrote, "Marine who led 2005 #Haditha massacre of 24 unarmd Iraqis spared jail by US court #Wuterich. If an Iraqi killd Americns?"

Others bemoaned the perceived injustice that Wuterich essentially "got off free" while a soldier like Bradley Manning, who is charged with leaking sensitive U.S. documents to Wikileaks, is facing life in prison.

"Bradley Manning should've really considered committing some war crimes instead of exposing them, worked well for Frank Wuterich. #Iraq," tweeted MazMHussein.

Another Twitter user, Salma Yaqoob, drew the same comparison.

"US justice: 3 months for killing 24 Iraqis. Years or even death for Bradley Manning exposing US soldiers killing Iraqis," she wrote.

But some legal analysts and Iraqi-Americans disagreed, saying they supported the sentence in light of the circumstances surrounding the murders.

"I don't think he should be punished," said Peter Abdul Ahad, a leader of the Iraqi American Association, based in Pomona, Calif. "This is war. Of course, this happens between military people and non-military people. He should defend himself, should have the liberty to defend himself."

Added Victor Hansen, a former lieutenant colonel and Army JAG officer who is now a professor of law at New England Law in Boston, "How can somebody walk away from an incident where 24 people are dead and not face more serious criminal consequences? In the context of a combat environment, when things are fast and confusing, can the government establish that the orders he gave resulted in an unjustified killing? It's hard to say. It's factually very difficult to prove."

The sentence reminded Hansen and Meister of another U.S.-led killing that resulted in a light sentence: the My Lai massacre of the Vietnam War, where Army soldiers killed hundreds of civilians in a Vietnamese village. The leader of the platoon was convicted and sentenced to jail, but only ended up serving house arrest for three-and-a-half years until his sentence was commuted.

"It's not so different, and it is not hard to understand the feelings of Iraqis that justice was not done," Meister said.