Thomas More Center to defend commander against Haditha charges
A Marine commander from Colorado who survived an ambush firefight in Haditha, Al Anbar, Iraq, against terrorists, but then got caught in John Murtha's firefight of words as the anti-war congressman tried to capitalize on allegations about the situation, will fight military charges of dereliction of duty and failing to follow orders.
Officials with the Thomas More Law Center of Ann Arbor, Mich., say the charges against a number of Marines, including their client Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, resulted after Time magazine "misreported" circumstances about the battle in the war on terror that pitted U.S. Marines against Iraqi and foreign terrorists on Nov. 19, 2005.
The situation got even worse, officials with the Law Center said, when Congressman John Murtha, an outspoken anti-war critic and chairman of the House military appropriations subcommittee, publicly accused four Marines of being "cold-blooded murderers" and high-ranking officers of "covering it up." "The astounding and unprecedented public accusations of 'murder' and 'cover-up' by Congressman Murtha, which he claimed were based on his conversation with senior military officials, taints the entire process," said Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel for the Law Center.
He noted that although Murtha has been questioned, he has thus far refused to provide the basis for his public accusations or reveal the names of the senior military officials from whom he claimed he got his information.
Haditha, which had been known as "an insurgent citadel," became headline material in the United States when a Marine convoy was ambushed by a road-side bomb and small arms fire from nearby houses. The bomb killed one Marine in a Humvee and injured two more, and the resulting house-to-house battle between the outnumbered 4-man Marine "fire team" and the insurgents resulted in 24 Iraqi deaths, including 15 civilians.
Now the Law Center said the future of America rests on support for the military.
"The outcome of this case is vital to the security of our nation and to the military personnel we place in harm's way," Thompson said. "As tragic as these civilian deaths are, it's essential that we not shackle our combat commanders' ability to make decisions by placing them in fear of criminal prosecution every time there are civilian casualties as a result of combat action."
"Lt. Col. Chessani never retained an attorney during the year-long investigation leading up to these criminal charges and voluntarily answered all questions posed by investigators," Thompson said. "He knew he had done nothing wrong and trusted he would be cleared. Despite the charges against him, he still believes in that last line of the military Code of Conduct – 'I will trust in God and in the United States of America.'"
The Law Center said Chessani is described by fellow officers as a focused, hands-on commander who followed the Law of War and was sympathetic to the plight of innocent Iraqis. He is a committed Christian with a wife and five children, and has served his nation honorably for more than 19 years with tours of duty in Panama, the first Persian Gulf War and three tours in Iraq.
There was a three-month delay between the time when the Marines were attacked in Haditha and the investigation was launched, "and as a result of a grossly erroneous and inflammatory Time Magazine news lead, which military commanders in the field suspected was instigated by terrorist propaganda," the center said.
Then months before the investigation was finished, Murtha, who was an unindicted co-conspirator in the FBI's 1980 Abscam case of alleged Arab bribes of U.S. congressmen, launched his verbal attack on the Marines.
The gist of the charges against Chessani is that he failed to investigate properly and brief higher commanders on the attack, the Law Center said, and it will be defending him at an Article 32 hearing March 21 at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
If that hearing, the equivalent of a civilian preliminary hearing, would determine the case should move forward, he ultimately could face dismissal, loss of retirement and a prison term.
But lawyers said it is important to understand the context of Chessani's decisions. They said before the Nov. 19 attack, Marines had found evidence Haditha was a terrorist stronghold, and the terrorists were known for placing Improvised Explosive Devices near youth centers and schools so they could use any civilians killed in their propaganda. Just earlier that year, terrorists occupied the Haditha hospital to stage an ambush, and placed innocent civilians at the center of their attack plan.
In fact, Marines were fired on from nearby civilian homes, and Chessani's later report to his commanders concluded the terrorists chose the fight location, "knowing that they would endanger the lives of civilians." Handling the case will be Law Center attorneys Robert Muise and Brian Rooney. Muise is a Marine infantry officer veteran of the first Persian Gulf War and a former Judge Advocate.
Rooney is a Marine veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a former Judge Advocate as well.
They will join the military detailed defense counsel team of Marine Reserve Lt. Col. Jon Shelburne, a law professor at Roger Willaims University School of Law, and Capt. Jeffery King, USMC, a defense counsel stationed at Camp Pendleton.
"Terrorists routinely use mosques, schools, hospitals, and civilian homes from which to launch attacks and hide," said Rooney. "We have always taught Marines to be aggressive and encouraged this aggression in order to help them survive and accomplish their mission."
"Through our defense of Lt. Col. Chessani, Marines on the ground will be assured that their valiant combat actions will not be turned into political fodder and talking points for politicians seeking headlines," said Muise.
"Unlike the anti-war media and politicians who have already convicted the Marines in print, Lt. Col. Chessani will be judged by his peers, many of whom are combat veterans and truly understand the situation in Iraq," Thompson said. "It is a system that we are confident will exonerate our client. We are not going to let a politician's agenda destroy a brave Marine's family, and career."
The center defends and promotes religious freedom of Christians, time-honored family values, and the sanctity of human life through litigation, education and related activities.
Chessani, who grew up in Rangely, Colo., and graduated from the University of Northern Colorado was among eight Marines charged in December with counts stemming from the Haditha ambush.
Also charged were Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich; Sgt. Sanick P Dela Cruz; Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, 22; Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum; 1st Lt. Andrew Grayson; Capt. Lucas McConnell and Capt. Randy Stone.