LOS ANGELES - Military prosecutors dropped all charges on Friday against a Marine accused of killing unarmed Iraqi women and children at Haditha in 2005, abruptly dismissing the case on the eve of trial with little explanation.
Lance Cpl Stephen B. Tatum became the fifth Haditha defendant out of eight to see charges dropped in a case that brought international condemnation on U.S. troops in Iraq. Three Marines, including accused ringleader Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, still face court-martial later this year.
Though prosecutors had reportedly offered Tatum, 26, immunity to testify against Wuterich, defense attorneys said no such deal had been struck.
"Lance Corporal Tatum is not trading his testimony for this dismissal," defense attorney Jack Zimmermann told Reuters in an interview. "He may very well be called as a witness for the prosecution or the defense, but he is going to be a neutral witness and will tell the truth, as he's always done."
Zimmermann said he believed the case was abandoned because it was "weak from the start." He described his client and the man's family as "relieved" and tearful at the news.
"I think when the prosecution realized we were going to trial and that he was going to tell the truth, as he has all along, this experienced set of prosecutors realized it wasn't really fair to dump all this on a lance corporal who was responding the way he was trained," Zimmermann told Reuters.
MARINES ACCUSED OF 'MASSACRE'
Word of the development came as jury selection was about to begin in Tatum's court-martial on charges of involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and aggravated assault at the Camp Pendleton Marine base in California.
The Marines offered little explanation, saying in a statement only that the case had been dropped "in order to continue to pursue the truth-seeking process into the Haditha incident." A Marine spokesman declined to elaborate.
"To ensure the remaining cases are brought to closure in a fair and just manner, further discussion of this case is inappropriate at this time," Lt. Col. Sean Gibson said.
Iraqi witnesses say angry Marines massacred unarmed civilians after a popular comrade, Lance Cpl. Miguel "TJ" Terrazas, was ripped in half by a roadside bomb. Defense attorneys maintain that the civilians were killed during a pitched battle with insurgents in and around Haditha.
Other Marines have testified that Tatum, who initially faced more serious charges of unpremeditated murder and negligent homicide, was among those who "cleared" two Iraqi houses after the roadside bombing, resulting in 19 deaths.
Another Marine testified Tatum told him to shoot a group of Iraqi women and children he found on a bed in a closed room. That Marine said he walked away but saw Tatum return and heard a loud noise, possibly gunfire or a grenade.
Of the eight Marines originally charged in the November 19, 2005, killing of 24 men, women and children at Haditha, five have now seen their cases dropped.
Court-martial for Wuterich has been postponed until later this year pending the appeal of a discovery ruling. Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani and 1st Lt. Andrew Grayson are set for court-martial in April and May.
© 2008 Reuters