By JULIE WATSON
A Marine sergeant who led a squad that killed 24 unarmed Iraqis avoided serving any time Tuesday for his role in one of the darkest chapters of the Iraq war, winning leniency through a plea deal that carried no real punishment beyond a reduction in rank.
Military judge Lt. Col. David Jones said he did not realize until after he recommended that Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich serve three months in the brig that his hands were tied by a deal that prevented any jail time.
Wuterich pleaded guilty Monday to negligent dereliction of duty as part of the agreement with prosecutors. The minor charge carries a maximum sentence of 90 days. But because of the way the military system works, the terms of the deal with prosecutors immediately known to the judge.
The judge also said he would recommend that Wuterich’s rank be reduced to private but had decided not to dock his pay because the divorced father has sole custody of three young daughters.
The recommendation will now go to the commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command for approval.
Earlier in the sentencing hearing, prosecutors asked Jones to give Wuterich the maximum sentence of three months confinement, a reduction in rank and forfeiture of two-thirds of his pay.
They said his knee-jerk reaction of sending the squad to assault nearby homes without positively identifying any threat went against his training and led to the deaths of the 10 women and children.
“That is a horrific result from that derelict order of shooting first, ask questions later,” Lt. Col. Sean Sullivan told the court.
The assault on the homes was ordered after a roadside bombing killed a Marine. Wuterich has acknowledged ordering his squad to “shoot first, ask questions later” after a roadside bomb took the life of a fellow Marine, but he said Tuesday he did not shoot any of the 10 women and children killed in nearby homes that he stormed with his men.
“The truth is: I never fired my weapon at any women or children that day,” Wuterich told Jones.The surprise contention by Wuterich contradicts prosecutors who implicated him in 19 of the 24 deaths. It also 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.
Defense attorney Neal Puckett said Wuterich has lived under the cloud of being labeled a killer who carried out a massacre in Iraq. Lawyers also said he has been exonerated of directly causing the deaths of civilians in the two homes and insisted his only intent was to protect his Marines, calling it “honorable and noble.”
“The appropriate punishment in this case, your honor, is no punishment,” Puckett said.
Wuterich, 31, told the court that his guilty plea should not suggest that he believes his men behaved badly or that they acted in any way that was dishonorable to their country. He said he ordered his men to “shoot first, ask questions later” so they would not hesitate in attacking the enemy, but he never intended to harm any civilians.
The plea deal that halted Wuterich’s manslaughter trial has sparked outrage in Iraq, where many said it proves the United States does not hold its military accountable for its actions.