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Rush to Judgement on Blackwater Defendants

For a few months in late 2005 and early 2006, it was ready fodder for the 24-hour news cycle. Eight U.S. Marines stood accused of killing 24 Iraqis during a rampage through their town. Tim McGuirk of Time magazine described a "horrific" event, with Marines going house-to-house and shooting civilians indiscriminately in retaliation for an earlier IED attack that claimed the life of a fellow Marine.

Other media outlets offered equally grim accounts of the Haditha incident, characterized as the "worst case of deliberate killing of Iraqi civilians since the war began." Politicians also joined the chorus. In May 2006, with the official military investigation still underway, Congressional blowhard Jack Murtha rushed to a microphone and declared the Marines guilty as charged.

"There was no firefight, there was no IED (improvised explosive device) that killed these innocent people," Murtha stated. "Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood."

Eventually, the Marines were charged in connection with the killings at Haditha. But over the months that followed, the cases against them largely collapsed. Prosecutors or investigating officers, citing insufficient evidence or improper command influence, dismissed charges against seven Marines.

Today, three years after the events at Haditha, only one Marine, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, is facing charges in connection with the incident. A courts-martial for Wuterich has been postponed, and some legal analysts believe the case may never go to trial. Sergeant Wuterich has filed a libel suit against Jack Murtha, claiming that the congressman's comments harmed his image. Murtha's efforts to dismiss the suit have been unsuccessful.

The Haditha example is worth remembering as the media and the justice system gear up for the next high-profile case related to alleged atrocities in Iraq. Earlier this week, five former employees of the private security firm Blackwater were charged with manslaughter for their role in a Baghdad shootout two years ago. Seventeen Iraqi civilians died in the incident.