The former Marine fired his M-16 alongside his squad leader, shooting off round after round into the dark bedroom of the Iraqi home, fearing he was under attack. But he admits he only saw silhouettes, some small, and he only heard his own squad's gunfire.
Later former Cpl. Stephen Tatum said he discovered that he and Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich had killed a woman and children in the back bedroom of the home in 2005 during a series of raids after a roadside bomb exploded, killing a Marine.
The Marines tossed grenades and fired into two Iraqi homes for 45 minutes, though they did not take any gunfire during that time nor find any weapons or insurgents, Tatum said. Still, six years after Marines killed 24 Iraqis that day in the town of Haditha, Tatum testified that he does not believe his squad did anything wrong.
Tatum gave his account Tuesday during the second day of testimony in the trial of Wuterich, the last defendant in one of the biggest criminal cases against U.S. troops to emerge from the war, which ended in December. Other squad mates are expected to take the stand Wednesday.
Wuterich faces nine counts of manslaughter and other charges. Prosecutors have implicated him in the Nov. 19, 2005, deaths of 19 of the 24 Iraqis, including several women and children. One squad member was acquitted. Six others, including Tatum, had their cases dropped. Tatum acknowledged Tuesday that charges against him were dismissed in exchange for testifying.
The tragedy prompted a tightening of combat rules during the war, with commanders demanding their troops positively identify their targets before firing.
Defense attorneys say Wuterich believed insurgents were hiding in the homes after the roadside bomb exploded near their convoy, killing Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas and injuring two others.
Tatum said he shared that fear because immediately after the bomb the Marines came under small arms fire. But he said he did not know where the gunfire originated. Wuterich and another Marine fatally shot five Iraqis outside a white car near the scene then headed toward the closest home, Tatum said.
In a back room, Tatum said he joined Wuterich in firing rounds but was unable to see what he was shooting at because of the darkness and flying debris.
"I saw silhouettes of targets and that was really it," Tatum said, adding that it looked like there was a man standing or kneeling.
Then someone yelled a person had fled. The Marines rushed out to a neighboring house, tossing in grenades and shooting off rounds there as well. Tatum saw the body of an Iraqi man near the kitchen when he went in after his fellow troops.
While checking an empty room, Tatum said he heard movements in a back bedroom and then Wuterich firing his M-16. He went in to assist Wuterich, shooting at what he said again were silhouettes, some big, some small.
"The only thing that gave me an indication that there was hostile intent would be Staff Sgt. Wuterich firing, sir," Tatum told military prosecutor Lt. Col. Sean Sullivan.
Wuterich also acknowledged after the incident that he did not positively identify his targets, three investigators testified.
Tatum returned later when the homes had been determined to be safe and learned they had killed several unarmed women and children, he said.
Staff Sgt. Justin Laughner also went in after the raids to gather military intelligence and testified Tuesday that he found no signs of insurgents. He took photographs of 23 bodies.
"I remember some of the kids had their eyes open," Laughner testified Tuesday, saying he was shaken by the carnage he saw in the back bedroom.
"I just wanted to leave the bedroom," he said. "I just thought it was really sad."
In 2008 testimony in the court-martial of another Marine in the case, Laughner acknowledged deleting photos he took at the scene under an officer's orders and later lied repeatedly to investigators about what happened to the images.
Prosecutors have painted a picture of a young Marine with no prior combat experience losing control after seeing his friend's body blown apart.
Wuterich has said he regretted the loss of civilian lives but believed he was operating within military combat rules at the time. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Wuterich listened Tuesday, occasionally rubbing his chin and whispering in the ear of his attorney during the day's testimony.
Defense attorney Neal Puckett suggested Tatum had changed details of his account since talking to investigators. Tatum said mistakes could have been made in the investigating reports but he stood by his testimony.