Haditha Massacre Sentence Outrageous But Correct

My latest for The Atlantic explains, "Why We Should Be Glad the Haditha Massacre Marine Got No Jail Time."

My latest for The Atlantic explains, “Why We Should Be Glad the Haditha Massacre Marine Got No Jail Time.”

When Marine Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich was handed a suspended sentence of three months on Wednesday for his role as squad leader of a group that massacred 24 unarmed Iraqis in Haditha six years ago, it naturally sparked an outrage. To many here in the U.S., in Iraq, and in the Muslim world writ large, this will likely be seen as the U.S. military excusing a heinous crime. But we should instead look at this, even if it is difficult to do so, as the price we pay for a justice system that prioritizes the rights of the accused over a desire to punish criminals.

[…]

Even though we now have a pretty good idea what happened that day, it’s incredibly hard to prove it in court without the active cooperation of reliable witnesses. Alas, as the Associated Press reports, “The prosecution was also hampered by squad mates who acknowledged they had lied to investigators initially and later testified in exchange for having their cases dropped, bringing into question their credibility.” And the few Iraqi survivors declined to testify, fearing for their safety.

[…]

Awis Fahmi Hussein, who survived the attacks, lamented, “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.”

Unsatisfying as it seems, a democratic outcome is exactly what we got. In an authoritarian society — probably even in today’s post-Saddam Iraq — governments will happily sentence citizens to jail to slake the public thirst for justice. In a liberal democracy, however, we put a very high burden on the state in taking away the liberty of a citizen accused of a crime.

Much more detail at the link–the piece is over 1300 words–but that’s the gist.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Military Affairs, Quick Takes, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Rob in CT says:

    A well-argued defense of the basic principles of our justice system in general. I know nothing about the particulars of this case, so I’ll just assume you characterized them properly.

    It’s still damned frustrating, as you note. The downside to a justice system that operates this way is that if the error rate is too high (in letting the guilty go free and/or jailing the innocent), people will lose faith in it. That faith is a fragile and precious thing.

  2. Rob in CT says:

    I’ll say this, though: if this M-Fer ends up on TV or being elected to office or something, I’ll scream.

  3. WR says:

    “In a liberal democracy, however, we put a very high burden on the state in taking away the liberty of a citizen accused of a crime.”

    Actually, what it proves is that the military will do just about anything to avoid punishing one of its own for atrocities committed in a war.

  4. @Rob in CT:

    I’ll say this, though: if this M-Fer ends up on TV or being elected to office or something, I’ll scream.

    He can change his name to Allen East.

  5. In a liberal democracy, however, we put a very high burden on the state in taking away the liberty of a [rich or white] citizen accused of a crime.

    FTFY.

  6. David Hart says:

    Anyone who bothers reading the entire article would call this anything but “the correct decision.” As one comment said, this just goes to show that the US will do anything to protect the military from the consequences of it’s shameful and hideous behavior. The author himself says that “Wuterich and several of his squad mates are almost certainly guilty of war crimes. That he got such a light sentence and the others got off Scot free will doubtless rub salt in the wounds of families who sought justice, And this outcome may well harm America’s image in a part of the world where it is already poor.”( Ya think?) Then he tries to make the case that America’s “fairness and impartiality” of it’s legal system won out…a ridiculous attempt to, as one person said, “be unapologetic for a crime against humanity, under the guise of retaining integrity in our justice system.”

  7. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    “The prosecution was also hampered by squad mates who acknowledged they had lied to investigators initially and later testified in exchange for having their cases dropped, bringing into question their credibility.” And the few Iraqi survivors declined to testify, fearing for their safety.

    A great day for American justice, you’re right, James.

  8. Rob in CT says:

    The American justice *system* can’t fix that.

    This smears feces all over America (and specifically her armed forces), but not specifically the justice system. That’s how I see it.

  9. rodney dill says:

    @Just nutha ig’rant cracker: Where does James say its a great day for American Justice? I must’ve missed that part.

    His closing sentences from the article seem imply just the opposite.

    That’s not satisfying. It’s probably not even justice. But it beats the alternative.

  10. Ole Sarge says:

    Unless you have been through the actual crucible of hell, you have standing. The current enemy is one that will lie to your face (it’s allowed in their religion) and shoot you in the back from a mosque or aid station. And afterwards, slip like a wisp of fog into the supportive population.

    They wear no uniform, and unarmed civilians are equal targets to military in uniform.

    Thank you G-d for the decision that others had months and years to make, but a group of our young adults had only nano-seconds to make during a fight for their lives.

    Hind sight IS always 20/20 when you can twist and turn a phrase for years.

  11. Rob in CT says:

    Nanoseconds to make a decision (orders: “shoot first, ask questions later” … result: dead women & children), followed by a deliberate coverup by those involved (which successfully foiled the prosecution).

    Why defend that, Sarge?

    These troops should never have been there. Sadly, they were sent. And they acted poorly. Then they acted poorly again:

    squad mates who acknowledged they had lied to investigators initially and later testified in exchange for having their cases dropped

    This is all justified in your mind because you think the infidel enemy is perfidious (as if Americans wouldn’t “lie to the face” of occupying forces!)?

  12. Barry says:

    @Ole Sarge: Just in case you were totally ignorant, the whole point of this case is that it wasn’t a decision made in combat. It was a bunch of guys who had suffered friends killed, who decided to kill some innocent locals as revenge. Pure and simple.

  13. Jenos Idanian says:

    How did this happen? John Murtha pronounced them guilty from the outset, and he was both a leading Democrat and a retired Marine. He must be spinning in his grave. Appeal immediately!

    (/sarc, for the clue-impaired)

  14. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @rodney dill: The “great day for” is my comment. Sorry to have confused you. (JEEEZ!)

    And if you think that decision was correct, well…

  15. Barry says:

    @Rob in CT: Well, let’s check – how many years in prison did these guys get for perjury? Lying to superiors?