CAMP PENDLETON, California: A jury has been selected for the court-martial of the last US Marine charged over a notorious 2005 killing of civilians in Iraq, paving the way for opening statements next week.
Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich pleaded not guilty Thursday at Camp Pendleton, California, where the first day of proceedings was spent questioning potential members of the panel which will decide his fate.
The 31-year-old faces nine counts of voluntary manslaughter and other charges for his role in 24 deaths, many of them women and children, in the Iraqi town of Haditha on November 19, 2005.
The jury, which was finalized Friday, is composed of eight members: four officers and four enlisted personnel, ranking from gunnery sergeant to lieutenant colonel.
Wuterich formally entered "not guilty" pleas to all charges, including counts of dereliction of duty and assault. If convicted of all the offenses at the month-long trial, he could be sentenced to more than 150 years in prison.
But his lead lawyer said he was confident the Iraq veteran would be exonerated.
"We're confident that the truth about Haditha will come out during the trial and that Staff Sergeant Wuterich will be acquitted of all charges," Neal Puckett told AFP Thursday at the military base north of San Diego.
Wuterich, who had no previous combat experience, was the squad leader who sent his men into a village to hunt for insurgents following a roadside bombing that killed a fellow Marine and injured two other US troops.
Nineteen people were killed inside houses, along with five men who pulled up near the scene in a car, triggering one of the most controversial criminal cases involving the US military during the nearly nine-year-long Iraq war.
The Marines said after the violence in Haditha that 15 Iraqis had been killed by the roadside bomb that killed the American soldier.
But a subsequent investigation by Time magazine showed most of the dead were killed as Marines swept through three houses near the site of the bombing.
Lawyers for the Marines said insurgents hid behind civilian homes and opened fire, sparking a shootout that would fall within legal rules of engagement.
Military prosecutors said however there were no such insurgents and that the Marines initiated a bloody three-hour rampage to avenge the death of their comrade.
The victims included 10 women or children killed at point-blank range.
The other seven Marines charged in the case have been exonerated through various legal rulings, fueling anger in Iraq, where authorities had pushed for US troops to be subject to Iraqi justice before the US pullout in December.
But Wuterich's attorneys have exhausted all possible appeals on behalf of their client, including an attempt to dismiss charges based on the forced retirement of one of the military defense attorneys.
Another ruling against the defense team allowed military prosecutors access to unaired portions of the CBS "60 Minutes" interview of Wuterich, which was conducted prior to charges being filed.
Wuterich remains on active duty at Camp Pendleton while awaiting resolution of his case.