CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (AP) - The lone Marine to face sentencing for the killing of two dozen unarmed Iraqis in one of the Iraq War's defining moments walked away with no jail time Tuesday after defending his squad's storming of the homes of Haditha as a necessary act "to keep the rest of my Marines alive."
Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich's sentence ends a six-year prosecution for the 2005 attack that failed to win any manslaughter convictions. Eight Marines were initially charged; one was acquitted and six others had their cases dropped.
Wuterich, who admitted ordering his squad to "shoot first, ask questions later" after a roadside bomb killed a fellow Marine, ended his manslaughter trial by pleading guilty on Monday to a single count of negligent dereliction of duty.
The deal that dropped nine counts of manslaughter sparked outrage in the besieged Iraqi town and claims the U.S. didn't hold the military accountable.
"I was expecting that the American judiciary would sentence this person to life in prison and that he would appear and confess in front of the whole world that he committed this crime, so that America could show itself as democratic and fair," said survivor Awis Fahmi Hussein, showing his scars from a bullet wound to the back.
Military judge Lt. Col. David Jones initially recommended the maximum sentence of three months for Wuterich, saying: "It's difficult for the court to fathom negligent dereliction of duty worse than the facts in this case."
But after opening an envelope to look at the terms of the plea agreement as is procedure in military court, Jones announced the deal prevented any jail time for the Marine.
"That's very good for you obviously," Jones said tersely to Wuterich.
Jones did recommend the sergeant's rank be reduced to private, but decided not to cut two-thirds of his pay because the divorced father has sole custody of his three daughters. The rank reduction has to be approved by a Marine general, who already signed off on the plea deal.
Wuterich read a statement apologizing to the victims' families and said he never fired on or intended to harm innocent women and children. But he said his plea shouldn't be seen as a statement he believes his squad dishonored their country.
"When my Marines and I cleared those houses that day, I responded to what I perceived as a threat and my intention was to eliminate that threat in order to keep the rest of my Marines alive," he said. "So when I told my team to shoot first and ask questions later, the intent wasn't that they would shoot civilians, it was that they would not hesitate in the face of the enemy."
"The truth is I never fired my weapon at any women or children that day," Wuterich told Jones.
The contention by Wuterich, 31, of Meriden, Conn., contradicts prosecutors and 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.
Prosecutors argued Wuterich's knee-jerk reaction of sending the squad to assault nearby homes without positively identifying a threat went against his training and caused needless deaths of 10 women and children.
"That is a horrific result from that derelict order of shoot first, ask questions later," said Lt. Col. Sean Sullivan.
Defense attorney Neal Puckett said Wuterich has been falsely labeled a killer who carried out a massacre in Iraq and insisted he only intended to protect his Marines in an "honorable and noble" act.
Wuterich directly addressed family members of the Iraqi victims, saying there were no words to ease their pain.
"I wish to assure you that on that day, it was never my intention to harm you or your families. I know that you are the real victims of Nov. 19, 2005," he said.
Military prosecutors worked for more than six years to bring Wuterich to trial on manslaughter charges that could have sent him away to prison for life. But only weeks after the long-awaited trial started, they offered Wuterich the deal that stopped the proceedings.
It was a stunning outcome for the last defendant in the case once compared with the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
Faraj said the deal was reached last week when the government recognized its case was falling apart with contradictory testimony from witnesses who had lied to investigators. Many of the squad members had their cases dropped in exchange for testifying. Prosecutors have declined to comment.
Wuterich was also seen as taking the fall for senior leaders and more seasoned combat veterans in his squad, analysts said. It was his first time in combat.
He plans to leave the Marine Corps and start a new career in informational technology. His lawyers said they plan to petition for clemency.