[Tuesday] evening, the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals (NMCCA), sitting in Washington DC, denied without comment the government’s motion for Reconsideration. Government prosecutors had asked that the unanimous ruling in favor of LtCol Jeffery Chessani, USMC, by a 3-judge NMCCA panel be reconsidered by all 9 judges. A majority of the 9 judges would have had to agree to take the case.
The Thomas More Law Center, a national public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has been representing LtCol Chessani since January 2007. He is also represented by detailed military attorneys LtCol Jon Shelburne, USMC; Capt Jeffrey King, USMC; and Capt Kyle Kilian, USMC.
Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel of the Thomas More Law Center commented, “This case has turned into a government vendetta against a patriotic Marine combat officer who loyally served his nation for over 20 years. We must also remember the sacrifices made by his wife and children while he left them to defend us during 3 tours of duty in Iraq, and during the First Persian Gulf War, and in the Panama Canal.”
Thompson continued, “The lengths to which our own government will go to persecute one of its most loyal officers are outrageous. Every war needs a scapegoat, and it seems the government is intent on making LtCol Chessani that very thing. The Thomas More Law Center won’t let them.”
The criminal charges against LtCol Chessani stemmed from a fierce house-to-house, room-by-room combat action taken by four of his Marines after being ambushed by insurgents in Haditha, Iraq on November 19, 2005. In that battle, 9 insurgents and 15 civilians were killed. LtCol Chessani was the battalion commander of the four Marines involved in the action. Every officer in Lt Col Chessani’s chain of command, including his reviewing General approved and commended him for his actions until the publication of a Time magazine article months later charging the Marines with committing a massacre. Claims of a massacre were later proved to be untrue.
On March 17, 2009, the 3-judge panel of NMCCA unanimously vindicated the ruling by Colonel Steven A. Folsom, USMC, dismissing all charges against LtCol Chessani on the grounds of Unlawful Command Influence. LtCol Chessani is the senior-most officer criminally charged as a result of the much-publicized and ill-described “Haditha massacre.”
In dismissing the charges against LtCol Chessani, Col Folsom described Unlawful Command Influence as the “the mortal enemy of military justice.” But despite the solid legal basis for the ruling, the government appealed the decision to NMCCA. NMCCA heard oral arguments on the government’s appeal on October 17, 2008. On March 17, 2009 the court ruled in LtCol Chessani’s favor. The government appealed April 16, 2009. The Law Center responded to the Reconsideration appeal on April 24, 2009.
In seeking Reconsideration by the entire panel of NMCCA, government prosecutors argued that the 3-judge panel misunderstood the difference between an officer’s rank and his billet (job). Essentially, the government argues that a full colonel in the Marine Corps could not unlawfully influence a Lieutenant Colonel if they held similar billet (job) positions.
The government now has 60 days to appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF). If the government loses at CAAF, they can seek a review by the U.S. Supreme Court. After all the appeals are over, the government can attempt to bring a new case against LtCol Chessani with a new convening authority (a new General overseeing the case if that new general so desires).