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Military judge refuses to dismiss case against Marine charged in killings of 24 Iraqi civilians

CAMP PENDLETON - A military judge at Camp Pendleton refused today to dismiss the case against a Marine charged in the killings of 24 Iraqi civilians in 2005, despite a key ruling favoring the defense earlier in the week.

A Sept. 13 trial date was set for Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who faces manslaughter, aggravated assault, dereliction of duty, reckless endangerment and obstruction of justice charges stemming from the Nov. 19, 2005, civilian deaths in Haditha.

The Iraqis were shot to death after a Marine was killed in a roadside bombing.

Wuterich's attorneys argued during a motions hearing this week that unlawful command influence tainted the case when a legal adviser counseling generals overseeing the case attended meeting with prosecutors.

Judge Lt. Col. David Jones ruled Tuesday that Wuterich's attorneys had shown there was the possibility of undue command influence, requiring prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that no such influence existed or if it existed, did not influence the generals' decision.

Jones ruled today that legal adviser Col. John Ewers only conducted a short interview of Wuterich and wrote a one-paragraph statement of how he radioed a message to his commanders the day of the killings.

During a 45-minute reading of his ruling, Jones said Gen. James Mattis, who oversaw the case, ''made independent, well-considered decisions'' and wasn't influenced in his thought processes by Ewers or any other Marine.

Mattis read 9,000 pages of case materials and was ''in firm grasp of all of the facts,'' said Jones.

''Ewers had no substantive conversations ever on this case,'' Jones said. ''The court must deal in facts, not mere speculation or conjecture. In this case, the government has proved no unlawful command influence.''

Wuterich showed no emotion when Jones handed down his ruling but spoke to reporters outside the courtroom.

''I was a little disappointed,'' a smiling Wuterich said. ''I am glad to see there will be a trial date. This is the beginning of the end.

''The past five years have been a long five years. I love being a Marine, but it is hard to continue the job knowing I'm not going anywhere.''

Wuterich is based at Camp Pendleton pending his trial, working in facilities maintenance.

Wuterich said he is coping with the wait for his case to be resolved by taking computer technology classes at Orange County's Saddleback College and coaching soccer.

Defense attorney Neal Puckett took today's ruling in stride, saying that Wuterich's legal team was prepared for an adverse decision.

''The good news is we have perhaps one of the best judges to sit on the bench (Jones),'' Puckett said. ''We respect his decision. He's assured us a fair trial is possible. The case will be considered by real, live Marines.

Finally, after nearly five years, we can have a hearing.'' Wuterich has asked for at least one-third of his jury to be composed of enlisted personnel.

Eight Marines were originally charged in the case, but only Wuterich -- the now 30-year-old squad leader -- still faces trial.


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