A former Marine — who was set to replace a staff sergeant in connection with the killings of civilians in Haditha, Iraq in 2005 — maintains that he was in charge of the military convoy that was hit by a roadside bomb, killing one Marine.
“I believe I was the convoy commander,” Hector Salinas, a former sergeant, told a military jury Thursday.
Prosecutors believe the Marine's death triggered the events that resulted in the killings of 24 Iraqi citizens, including several children.
Staff Sgt. Wuterich is on trial for nine counts of voluntary manslaughter, two counts of assault with a dangerous weapon, and three counts of dereliction of duty.
Wuterich, a sergeant during the Haditha event, was set to be promoted, allowing Salinas — then a corporal — to take command of the convoy the day of the Haditha incident.
Wuterich is accused of leading the squad that initially shot to death five men and continued to kill men, women and children in homes where the Marines believed the bomb's triggerman could be hiding.
Salias' testimony raises questions about who was in charge that day and whether Wuterich can be found guilty of dereliction of duty.
Seven other Marines allegedly involved in the Haditha deaths have either been acquitted or had the charges against them dropped.
Prosecutor Lt. Col. Sean Sullivan asked Salinas what he would have done differently on the day he, Wuterich and other Marines entered the first home, killing occupants that included women and children.
Salinas said he wouldn’t have even entered the house. Instead, he said, he would have asked nearby aircraft for assistance.
“I would have just utilized my air to just level the house,” he said. “At the time, I didn’t know there were women and children in there.”
When asked if Wuterich ever acted as a squad leader, Salinas said Wuterich did pick up the radio to talk to the base, but didn’t take over all squad leader duties.
“I mean, he was a sergeant,” he said. “I can’t say if he acted as a squad leader, but he acted as a sergeant.”
The judge, Lt. Col. David Jones, read a juror’s question asking Salinas if Wuterich ever made any squad leader decisions that day.
“I couldn’t tell you, sir,” Salinas said. “That’s kind of irrelevant, because Marines are supposed to make their own decisions … especially being a grunt.”
As the situation on Nov. 19, 2005 developed, higher-ranking Marines showed up and took control, he said.
Former Lance Cpl. Trent Graviss testified after Salinas and had a different perspective on who was in command that day, saying that Wuterich was the squad leader.
“Cpl. Salinas … was second in command,” he said.
Neither Salinas nor Graviss remember Wuterich telling Marines to if they are attacked, as Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz told the court Wednesday.
Neither of the two remembered another incident that Dela Cruz — who also admitted lying to investigators — described to the court Wednesday. He alleged Wuterich had told him and others after the incident to say some of the dead were running away and Iraqi soldiers had shot them.
No autopsies were conducted on the bodies, leaving the court without a coroner’s report that could show if the larger-caliber Iraqi weapons may have killed any of the civilians.
Graviss, who never fired his weapon that day, said he didn’t remember being told to fabricate a story. Prosecutor Maj. Nicholas Gannon sought to dismiss the relevance of his memory on that point, reminding him that he didn’t enter the houses where the killings occurred.
“So, why would you be part of a cover-up discussion?” the prosecutor asked.
“Correct, sir,” Graviss responded.