LOS ANGELES (AFP) — Charges against a senior US Marine officer accused of failing to properly investigate the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians were dismissed Tuesday, a military spokesman confirmed.
Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Chessani was the highest-ranking officer to face criminal charges following the killings in Haditha in November 2005, but walked free after a hearing at the Marine Corps Camp Pendleton base near San Diego.
The 44-year-old was cleared after Judge Colonel Steven Folsom ruled the case had been "tainted" by the possibility that the general who approved charges may have been influenced by a legal adviser who was a prosecution witness.
"Unlawful command influence is the mortal enemy of military justice," the North County Times quoted Folsom as saying. "The appearance of unlawful command influence is as devastating as actual manipulation of a trial."
Chessani's attorney, Brian Rooney, said that while the court could refile the charges, he was "cautiously optimistic that the case is going to be over." "We believe that they should end it," Rooney said. "Enough is enough."
Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, which assisted in the defense, said the decision to prosecute had sidelined an exemplary officer.
"Tragically our own government eliminated one of its most effective combat commanders," Thompson said in a statement. "The insurgents are laughing in their caves."
A total of eight Marines were initially charged in 2006 over the case but prosecutors have struggled to make the allegations stick.
So far seven of the accused have either been acquitted or had charges withdrawn before court martial.
Chessani's acquittal on Tuesday leaves just one defendant -- Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich -- facing prosecution. Wuterich's trial has been scheduled for later this year.
Wuterich faces multiple charges of voluntary manslaughter for his role in the deaths, which occurred after a deadly roadside bombing that claimed the life of a Marine in Haditha, 260 kilometers west of Baghdad, in 2005.
Many of the victims were unarmed men, women and children.
Four soldiers were initially charged with murder and four officers accused of covering-up the incident.
The Marines said in a press release issued after the violence in Haditha that 15 Iraqis had been killed by the roadside bomb that killed the Marine.
But a subsequent investigation by Time magazine showed that most of the dead were killed as Marines swept through three houses near the site of the bombing, prompting a wide-ranging internal investigation.
The killings in Haditha are the most serious allegations of war crimes leveled at US forces since the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, and is one of several cases involving Marines from Camp Pendleton.
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