WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Four Marines have been charged with murder in the 2005 killings of 24 Iraqi civilians, and four officers are accused of failing to investigate and report the deaths properly, the Marine Corps announced Thursday.
It's been a while so here are two bits that lay out what would make this a crime and what would make it simply a tragedy.
That is all this really boils down to, one question. Did they think they were in danger? That is all a trial will determine. If they reasonably believed they were under attack and the Iraqis were killed in the course of immediate actions responding to those attacks (real or imagined) then no crime was committed. The determinative factor here is the mindset of the Marines involved, and that is the only relevant factor. It is easy to sensationalize this event by focusing on dead children and the press accounts but when it comes time to render a verdict, the only thing that matters is what those Marines thought was coming from those buildings.
The interesting thing to me in these charges is that four officers were charged, although none were actively involved in the shootings. I think I see something developing. The accounts of this incident most people are familiar with came from some very shaky sources and the video and pictures of the incident have not been shown to match descriptions of the event. The people living in this area have had strong ties to insurgents and any eyewitness testimony would be subject to intense scrutiny and questioning by defense attorneys for the Marines involved. All of this means getting a conviction will be tough. Prosecutors must convince a jury that these Marines knew there was no threat and just decided it was time to waste some Iraqis. That is something plenty of the left could easily envision, but this will be a jury of other Marines and they know better.
The prosecutors pretty much need one of the shooters or the others who were there to admit they knew there was no threat. Or for one of the shooters to have admitted that to someone else who will testify. The physical evidence and testimony of Iraqis is not likely to be enough to convict, as it doesn't matter whether there actually was a threat, just whether they reasonably thought there was. Back to those officers, none of whom was a shooter. They are ultimately responsible for the actions of the enlisted men they lead. That responsibility sometimes leads to accountability, and charging four of them leaves plenty of sacrificial lambs and scapegoats. I would bet the case against Wuterich and the other three is too weak for comfort and the officers are charged to make sure somebody fries. We shall see what a trial brings.
Matt pointed out a couple of other good pieces in the comments.
Some other references that might interest our readers:
Re-Update: The savage wenches at Euphoric Reality have a detailed look at the many discrepancies in accounts of these events