Late [yesterday] morning, the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals sitting in Washington DC, released their unanimous decision upholding the dismissal of charges against Marine Lt. Col Jeffrey Chessani on the grounds of apparent Unlawful Command Influence. But the case may not be over yet.
For the last four years, LtCol Chessani has been investigated and prosecuted for his involvement in the so called “Haditha Massacre” – a massacre that never happened. A 22-year veteran, Chessani has served three tours of duty in Iraq. He served in the First Persian Gulf War and in Panama. At the time of the November 19, 2005 Haditha incident, he was the Battalion Commander of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (“The Thundering Third”) – one of the most decorated units in the history of the Marine Corps.
Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, observed, “LtCol Chessani, one of the most effective combat commanders we had in Iraq, was a made political scapegoat by the civilians in the Pentagon to appease the antiwar politicians and a liberal media. In fact, we now know that the story of the ‘massacre’ that prompted the Haditha prosecutions was a headline in a Time news article instigated by insurgent propaganda operatives.”
Continued Thompson, “This nation has come to the point where we can’t call terrorists captured on the battlefield ‘enemy combatants.’ We release the terrorists out of Guantanamo and prosecute the military our country placed in harms’ way to defend us.”
Robert Muise, an attorney with the Law Center, a national public interest law firm, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, argued the case on behalf of LtCol Chessani. The Law Center has been defending LtCol Chessani throughout his prosecution alongside his detailed Marine lawyers, LtCol John Shelburne and Captain Jeff King. Captain Kyle Kilian, a Marine appellate defense lawyer, also assisted in the appeal.
LtCol Chessani is the highest ranking officer facing criminal charges as a result of the much-publicized and ill-described “Haditha massacre.” The criminal charges against him stem from a legitimate combat action taken by four enlisted Marines in his command after they were ambushed by insurgents in Haditha, Iraq, on November 19, 2005. Their actions resulted in the deaths of several ambushing insurgents. Unfortunately and tragically, several civilians were also killed in the house-clearing operation.
Even though LtCol Chessani wasn’t present during the incident, he was criminally charged with failing to launch a full investigation into the incident. If convicted, he faces 2 ½ years imprisonment, dismissal from the Corps, and loss of all of his retirement pay.
The essential holding of the military appellate court was as follows: “We are convinced the Government failed to meet its burden of demonstrating, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the proceedings were untainted by the appearance of UCI (Unlawful Command Influence). We are similarly convinced that an objective, disinterested observer, fully informed of all the facts and circumstances, would harbor significant doubt about the fairness of this proceeding.”
This decision could be appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) and then even to the U.S. Supreme Court. The government has yet to announce whether it will pursue another appeal.