Iraq deaths: US Marines to hold hearing for officer
Camp Pendleton, California: A Camp Pendleton Marine officer whose criminal charges of failing to investigate the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians were dismissed must clear one final hurdle before retirement.
An administrative military panel will begin an inquiry Wednesday to determine if Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, of Rangely, Colo., should be demoted in retirement — something his attorney says could cost Chessani millions of dollars in lost pension, health and retirement benefits.
Chessani was originally charged with dereliction of duty for failing to investigate the 2005 killings of men, women and children by Marines in Haditha, but a judge at Camp Pendleton dismissed the charges because of improper contact between a general overseeing the case and an investigator. The Marines announced in April they would not pursue further criminal charges.
At the hearing Wednesday, attorneys will argue over what evidence can be submitted, including photos of the Iraqi dead, before proceeding to opening statements, said Brian Rooney, Chessani`s civilian defense attorney.
The three-member panel will then retire to review a number of documents before taking witness testimony beginning Dec 7.
If the board finds no wrongdoing, the case will be closed. If it finds misconduct, it can recommend that the Secretary of the Navy order Chessani retired at a lesser rank.
Rooney said Chessani faces demotion to major, which would be a financial blow for Chessani and his wife. The 43-year-old is a father of six, is expecting a seventh child and has put in for retirement.
"It will have a huge economic effect on him and his family to the tune of millions of dollars," Rooney said.
"There`s a sense of fairness that all Marines have, and typically these (hearings) are seen as unfair," he said. "If you can`t get a guy criminally, it`s seen as taking another bite of the apple."
Murder counts have been dismissed or withdrawn against the four enlisted troops charged in the case and charges were also been dismissed or withdrawn for three other officers accused of mishandling the case.
A fifth Marine, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, is expected in military court early next year on nine counts of manslaughter. He has pleaded not guilty. The incident occurred after one Marine was killed and two others were wounded by a roadside bomb.
Wuterich and a squad member allegedly shot five men by a car at the scene. Investigators say Wuterich then ordered his men to clear several houses with grenades and gunfire, leaving women and children among the dead.
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