A government prosecutor on Wednesday portrayed a Marine Corps officer facing demotion as a negligent, substandard commander for not investigating the killing of 24 Iraqi men, women and children by Marines under his command.
A defense attorney, however, countered that Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani was a brilliant leader who took the fall amid political pressure fueled by inaccurate media reports of what was a chaotic firefight with insurgents _ not a war crime.
The conflicting portraits emerged during opening statements to a three-member military panel that will determine if Chessani should be demoted in retirement for dereliction of duty, a move his civilian attorney says could cost Chessani and his wife a half-million dollars in benefits. The couple is expecting their seventh child.
Lt. Col. Paul Atterbury, a government attorney, told the panel the shootings occurred after an improvised bomb killed one Marine and injured two others while they were on patrol.
In the two hours that followed, a squad of Marines shot five men in a car near the explosion, killed a runner on a ridgetop then swept south into a residential area, killing 18 more civilians in three homes, Atterbury said.
Among the dead were nine women and two children _ deaths that eventually led to $38,000 in condolence payments from the U.S. military.
Chessani didn't visit the scene of the Nov. 19, 2005 shootings until the next day and resisted an investigation even after an initial inspection found no evidence of insurgent activity and after Haditha leaders met with Marines and complained of war crimes, Atterbury said.
In addition, Chessani's reports to his superiors were inaccurate and incomplete, he said.
A full investigation did not begin until January 2006 when a Time magazine reporter inquired.
"What's tragic about the events of the 19th of November is the loss of life," Atterbury said. "How did they die? How did we wind up with more loss of life?"
Chessani had been charged with dereliction of duty for failing to investigate the killings and was relieved of his command in 2006. However, a judge at Camp Pendleton dismissed the charges because of improper contact between a general overseeing the case and an investigator.
The Marines announced in April they would not pursue further criminal charges and referred the case to the administrative panel.
In his opening statement, Chessani's military attorney Lt. Col. Jon Shelburne refuted the government's case and portrayed the incident as part of a complex and coordinated attack on U.S. forces along a 10-mile stretch south of Haditha.
The Marines encountered small arms fire from both sides of the road immediately after the explosion and needed to clear the civilian homes because they suspected insurgents were firing from rooftops, Shelburne said.
"The government has wed itself to this narrative that maybe one or two shots were fired (by insurgents)," he said. "Gentlemen, you're going to hear very different reports from the men who were on the ground."
Shelburne painted Chessani as a well-respected commander with 22 years of experience who was recommended for the Bronze Star, praised as a top battalion commander and singled out for advanced training and promotion.
Chessani reported the civilian deaths to his superiors, who didn't order an investigation despite the civilian deaths, Shelburne said.
"Everyone in that chain of command was aware that civilians were killed in residential structures," he said.
After the hearing ended Wednesday, the panel retired to review a number of documents. Testimony begins Monday.
If the board finds no wrongdoing, the case will be closed. If it finds misconduct, it can recommend that the secretary of the Navy order Chessani retired at a lesser rank.
Chessani's civilian attorney Brian Rooney said his client faces demotion to major, which would be a financial blow.
Murder counts have been dismissed or withdrawn against four enlisted troops, and charges also were dismissed or withdrawn for three other officers accused of mishandling the case.
Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, the sole Marine who still faces criminal charges, is expected in military court early next year on nine counts of manslaughter. He has pleaded not guilty.