In the on-going controversy over the defamation lawsuit against Rep. Jack Murtha, one of the collateral issues has been whether the Marines that he accused of a massacre would be tried for murder. Today, it appears that there will be no such charges coming out of the killing of roughly two dozen Iraqi citizens in the town of Haditha in November 2005. The recommendation is that Sgt. Frank Wuterich face trial for lesser charges of negligent homicide.
The case involved allegations that Marines killed up to two dozen Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha in November 2005. The investigating officer in the case has recommended that Sgt. Frank Wuterich face trial for lesser charges of negligent homicide.
The impact of this development on the defamation case is hard to judge. Clearly, a conviction for murder would have made the claims against Murtha more difficult to press in court, even though he referred to a larger group of Marines. It is equally clear that negligent homicide (even if proven) is hardly the stuff of massacres. However, the view of the military on the character of the act is not controlling and Murtha can still show the basis for his view. Truth remains a defense to defamation. Murtha is in hot water because he indicated that he was basing his decision on information from an official source – making it more difficult to argue opinion. He also made the comments outside of Congress – stripping away his constitutional protection as a member of Congress. Nevertheless, it is not an easy case to make and Murtha probably still has the advantage in prevailing at trial or on appeal due to these countervailing issues. Such group libel cases are tricky, particularly when they are the subjects of public debate. Courts tend to give First Amendment speech wide berth. It will certainly be interesting to watch as these criminal and civil cases move along parallel tracks.