A roadside IED explosion in Haditha, Iraq on 19 November 2005 killed one marine, L/Cpl Miguel Terrazas, and injured two others.
Subsequently in three houses over the next few hours 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women and children, were killed.
Initially The US military reported that the Iraqis had been killed by that explosion, or in a subsequent gunfight with insurgents. Iraqi witnesses said US troops shot dead 5 unarmed men in a taxi when they approached the scene of the bombing.
The US military didn't investigate until January 2006, when video footage shot by a local human rights activist Iraqi journalism student Taher Thabet videotaped the scene at a local morgue and the homes where the shootings had occurred was widely published and Time conducted an investigation which was taken up by Democratic Congressman John Murtha from Pennsylvania who accused the Marines of cold blooded murder.
The following month, three officers in charge of troops in Haditha were stripped of their command and reassigned. The Marines paid more than US$40,000 in restitution to survivors of 15 victims killed in two of the houses.
Eventually 8 troops were court martialled for a range of offences including voluntary manslaughter , 5 of them have now had charges dropped.
L/Cpl Stephen Tatum, 26, was about to face a court martial on charges of involuntary manslaughter ****- charges of unpremeditated murder and negligent homicide had previously been reduced to involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault. Marines in previous hearings have testified that L/Cpl Tatum helped “clear” two Iraqi houses in which 19 people died.
Another marine testified L/Cpl Tatum told him to shoot Iraqi women and children found hiding in a closed room. That marine said he walked away but saw L/Cpl Tatum return and heard a loud noise, possibly gunfire or a grenade
Investigating Officer Lt. Col. Paul J. Ware wrote in a 29-page report that there is insufficient evidence to show that Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum did anything other than follow Marine Corps rules when he killed women and children in two houses in a residential neighborhood in Iraq on Nov. 19, 2005. Ware found that Tatum followed orders to attack the houses and shot a group of civilians only because another Marine in the unit was already shooting at them....he did so was because of his training and the circumstances he was placed in, not to exact revenge and commit murder.”
Staff Sgt. Justin Laughner, taken under a grant of immunity testified on June 7, 2007 that he was ordered by Lt. Andrew Grayson to destroy grisly pictures of women and children killed by Marines so that the images would not be part of a statement being prepared for an investigative officer and a magazine reporter.
Tatum's defence lawyer Jack Zimmerman, said in a statement: "It became clear to the experienced prosecution team that the right thing to do was to dismiss all charges. " ( report here pdf)
"We believe the evidence shows that Lance Corporal Tatum reacted to an enemy attack the way he was trained to do."
The Marine Corps said it was dropping all charges against him and granting full immunity "in order to continue to pursue the truth-seeking process into the Haditha incident".
In February, Tatum received an order to testify against Wuterich and an unrequested immunity order that said anything to which he testified would not be used against him in his court-martial. On Friday, a new immunity order was issued, along with the dismissal of charges.
Courts martial for Lt Col Jeffrey Chessani and 1st Lt Andrew Grayson are expected in April and May respectively, while the suspected / alleged ringleader, Staff Sgt Frank Wuterich, faces a court martial on 9 counts of voluntary manslaughter later this year.
L/Cpl Tatum's lawyer denied that a deal had been struck under which the marine would testify against Sgt Wuterich. Murder charges against Sgt. Dela Cruz who admitted killing the taxi occupants were dropped last year in exchange for his testimony.
“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.
Charges L/Cpl Stephen Tatum faced :
Charge I: Violation of the UCMJ, Article 119 (Involuntary Manslaughter)(Maximum punishment: dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 10 years):
Specification 1: by culpable negligence or while perpetrating an offense directly affecting a person, unlawfully kill Noor Yunis Salim.
Specification 2: by culpable negligence or while perpetrating an offense directly affecting a person, unlawfully kill Zainab Yunis Salim.
Charge II: Violation of the UCMJ, Article 128 (aggravated assault)
(Maximum punishment: dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 8 years):
Specification: commit an assault upon women and children by shooting at them with his M16A4 service rifle.
Charge III: Violation of the UCMJ, Article 134 (reckless endangerment)
(Maximum punishment: bad conduct discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 1 year)
Specification: wrongfully and recklessly engage in conduct by firing his M16A4 service rifle into a room occupied by unarmed men, women, and children.