Officer Recommends Murder Charges Against Marine Accused In Iraqi Slayings Be Dismissed

Wednesday, July 11th 2007, 7:42 am
By: News On 6

SAN DIEGO (AP) _ The government's case against a Marine accused of fatally shooting Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha lacks sufficient evidence to go to a court-martial and should be dropped, a hearing officer determined.

The murder charges were brought against Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt for killing three Iraqi brothers in November 2005.

The hearing officer, Lt. Col. Paul Ware, wrote in a report released by the defense Tuesday that those charges were based on unreliable witness accounts, insupportable forensic evidence and questionable legal theories. He also wrote that the case could have dangerous consequences on the battlefield, where soldiers might hesitate during critical moments when facing an enemy.

``The government version is unsupported by independent evidence,'' Ware wrote in the 18-page report. ``To believe the government version of facts is to disregard clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.''

Prosecutors allege Sharratt and other members of his battalion carried out a revenge-motivated assault on Iraqi civilians that left 24 dead after a roadside bomb killed a fellow Marine nearby.

Sharratt contends the Iraqi men he confronted were insurgents and at least one was holding an AK-47 rifle when he fired at them.

In addition to Sharratt, two other enlisted men are charged with murder and four officers are accused of failing to investigate the incident _ the largest single Iraqi civilian death case of the war. Sharratt's case is the first among the three charged with murder to go to a hearing known as an Article 32 investigation, the military equivalent of a grand jury.

``Whether this was a brave act of combat against the enemy or tragedy of misperception born out of conducting combat with an enemy that hides among innocents, Lance Corporal Sharratt's actions were in accord with the rules of engagement and use of force,'' Ware wrote.

He said further prosecution of Sharratt could set a ``dangerous precedent that ... may encourage others to bear false witness against Marines as a tactic to erode public support of the Marine Corps and its mission in Iraq.''

``Even more dangerous is the potential that a Marine may hesitate at the critical moment when facing the enemy,'' he said.

The recommendation to drop the murder charge is nonbinding. A final decision about whether Sharratt should stand trial will be made by Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the commanding general overseeing the case.

Prosecutors at Sharratt's preliminary hearing introduced several accounts from Iraqis that said Sharratt had separated four men from a group of women and children and ordered them into a house. There, prosecutors said, he shot three of them and when he ran out of bullets the squad leader Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich allegedly shot the fourth.

Ware deemed the witness accounts and testimony given by other Marines unreliable.

At home in Canonsburg, Pa., Sharratt's family said the news was huge.

``That report is a declaration of Justin's innocence,'' said Sharratt's mother, Theresa. ``This is very, very good news.''

Defense attorneys James Culp and Gary Myers said in a statement that the report ``reflected the value of the calm of a courtroom and the adversarial process.''

This is the second time an investigating officer has recommended charges not continue to trial in connection wit the Haditha killings. In the case of Marine lawyer Capt. Randy W. Stone, the investigating officer recommended Stone's dereliction of duty charge be dealt with administratively.