Judge Denies Attorneys Request In Haditha Trial

A military judge has denied a request of attorneys for a Marine lieutenant colonel to interview Rep. John Murtha over comments he made about Marines killing "in cold blood" in an attack that left 24 Iraqis dead in Haditha.

Attorneys for Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani of Rangley, Colo., wanted to depose the Pennsylvania Democrat over public statements he made that he had been briefed by the highest levels of the military about the case and that officers covered it up.

Chessani's attorneys say they plan to ask the judge to reconsider his ruling in April. If the judge again rules against them, they say they will appeal.

The attorneys contend "undue command influence" from the highest levels -- from the Marine Corps top leaders to Murtha -- was used to force the prosecution of Chessani, who is the highest-ranking U.S. serviceman to face a combat-related court-martial since the Vietnam War.

"When the congressman said he was briefed by the highest levels, we need to know who they are," said Brian Rooney, Chessani's civilian defense attorney.

Rooney said Murtha's deposition would "confirm what he said to the press is accurate."

Murtha's spokesman, Matthew Mazonkey, said the congressman had no comment. A telephone call to a Marine Corps spokesman was not immediately returned.

Chessani has been charged with dereliction of duty and violation of a lawful order on allegations that he mishandled the aftermath of the Nov. 19, 2005, shooting deaths in Haditha.

Earlier that day, the squad's convoy was struck by a roadside bomb, killing one Marine and wounding another. In the aftermath, squad members killed 24 Iraqi civilians, authorities have said.

Chessani was commander of the Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment that has been the focus of the largest prosecution of U.S. troops in the Iraq war.

The decision to send Chessani to trial came after a hearing officer blasted him for failing to go to the scene of the killings immediately after they occurred.

Chessani has said he never ordered a formal investigation because he believed the deaths resulted from lawful combat.

Four enlisted Marines were initially charged with murder in the case and four officers were charged with failing to investigate the deaths. Charges against several of the men have been dropped, and none will face murder charges.

Chessani faces court-martial on April 28. If convicted on all counts, he faces up to three years in prison.

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