Alissa Chessani broke down in tears when a military judge dismissed all charges against her husband, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, during a hearing at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on June 17. The Marine Corps officer was being court-martialed in the case surrounding the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in 2005.
Prosecutors charged eight marines with killing the Iraqis out of revenge for the car-bombing death of a fellow marine. Defense attorneys maintained that the civilians, women and children among them, were cut down by crossfire during an American clash with insurgents. Though not present at the site of the incident, Chessani was in command of the Haditha unit. He reported the Iraqi deaths, but was later charged with dereliction of duty and failure to follow a lawful order.
Col. Steven Folsom dismissed those charges, saying Lt. Gen. James Mattis, then in command of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, had exercised "unlawful command influence" in bringing Chessani to trial. Folsom found that Mattis had illegally allowed Col. John Ewers, a military investigator and potential witness against Chessani, to join in strategy sessions about whether to prosecute him. Folsom gave prosecutors 72 hours to notify him of any intention to appeal.
"Like all of us, [the Chessanis] are cautiously optimistic," said Thomas More Law Center attorney Brian Rooney, Chessani's defense counsel and a former Marine. "Essentially, the judge said that if they want to file charges, they have to start back at square one."
Among eight original defendants, only one, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, still faces charges. Chessani makes the sixth defendant whose charges were dismissed. Another marine, 1st Lt. Andrew Grayson, was acquitted in a jury trial.
Even after the Haditha incident, Chessani's combat fitness reports painted him as "one of the top three commanders of 13" who had served with his regiment during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Now, though, Chessani is expected to retire. Thomas More Law Center president Richard Thomas said it was tragic that "our own government eliminated one of its most effective combat commanders. The insurgents are laughing in their caves."