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United States of America v. Jeffrey Chessani

Court United States Navy-Marines Corps Court of Criminal Appeals (NMCCA), United States
Case number NMCCA 200800299
Decision title Opinion of the Court
Decision date 17 March 2009
  • United States of America
  • Jeffrey R. Chessani
Categories War crimes
Keywords murder, war crimes, command responsibility, unlawful command influence
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What happened after a makeshift bomb ended the life of a US Navy Marines Corporal near the village of Haditha on 19 November 2005? After increasing media attention, the US army launched an investigation and charged eight marines, as raids against the population of Haditha allegedly resulted in the death of 24 civilians. Proceedings were initiated against Jeffrey Chessani, a commander who had not been present during the explosion and its aftermath, but had allegedly failed to adequately report and investigate the incident.

However, by the time the case reached the Navy-Marines Corps of Criminal Appeals, the legal question did not revolve around Chessani’s role during the incidents, but around the question whether there was an appearance of unacceptable influence on the case by Colonel Ewers, an important figure in military legal circles. The NMCCA confirmed the previous ruling by the Trial Judiciary, stating that the US government had failed in refuting the appearance of ‘unlawful command influence’. According to the NMCCA, the government had only attempted to disprove that Ewers directly influenced key figures in the circle of the prosecutor, while not addressing whether the prosecution’s legal advisors might have been influenced by Ewers. 

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Procedural history

The Consolidated Disposition Authority (CDA) referred charges against Jeffry Chessani to a general court-martial on 19 October 2007. He was charged with violating a lawful general order and dereliction of duty, thereby violating Article 92 UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice). On 1 April 2008, Chessani filed a motion to dismiss the charges, as he alleged unlawful command influence (UCI). In a preliminary ruling of 20 May 2008, the military judge considered that there was evidence of UCI, which caused the burden of proof to shift to the prosecutors. They now had to proof that the facts alleged by the defence were untrue, that they did not constitute UCI or that the UCI had not affected the proceedings. The NMCTJ ruled on 17 June 2008 that the Government had not been able to disprove UCI, thereby dismissing all charges against Chessani. The Government appealed against these findings, while Chessani requested the NMCCA to confirm the first ruling, which the NMCCA did on 17 March 2009.  The Government decided against further appeal.

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Related developments

Because the dismissal of charges was made without prejudice, the Government still had the option of seeking to re-charge Chessani. It decided against this. The Marine Corps decided to handle the matter administratively by appointing a Board of Inquiry. On August 27 2009, this Board of Inquiry ruled that Chessani was not guilty of misconduct and should not be demoted. However they ruled that he should retire, as he had displayed ‘substandard performance.’

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Legally relevant facts

In Iraq, Chessani was commander of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment, which was based on the Euphrates. In that region, in the village Haditha, a makeshift bomb exploded on 19 November 2005, killing corporal Terrazas and injuring two other soldiers. It was claimed that men from the Kilo Company responded by raiding against a vehicle and several houses, which resulted in the death of 24 men, women and children. Media attention and public denunciation led to the Army initiating investigations, which led to criminal charges being made against eight marines. The essence of the charges made against Chessani was failure to accurately report and thoroughly investigate the Haditha incidents (p. 2 under A). Col. Ewers, who played a significant role in investigating the Haditha incidents, interviewed Chessani regarding the charges. He indicated that he suspected wrongdoing on Chessani’s side and he challenged Chessani’s explanations, which resulted in several inculpatory statements. Despite not having an official role in the prosecution phase and despite several warnings against giving Ewers an advisory role in this case, Ewers did attend meetings in which Haditha cases were discussed. Also present were CDA Lieutenant-General Mattis and other members of the trial team.

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Core legal questions

Although the case initially revolved around Chessani’s alleged failure to accurately report and thoroughly investigate the Haditha incidents, the NMCTJ’s decision to dismiss the charges against Chessani meant that the NMCCA did not have to assess those charges. The NMCTJ had found in its preliminary ruling that there was evidence that Generals Mattis and Helland, who controlled the disposition of Chessani’s case, were impermissibly influenced by Marine lawyer Colonel Ewers, one of the first Haditha investigators. The US Government stated in its appeal that the evidence provided by the Defence of UCI was disproved by the fact that Mattis had stated several times that he was not influenced or intimidated by Colonel Evans.

The NMCCA had to assess whether the Military Judge erred in ruling that the Government did not establish one of the following by proof beyond a reasonable doubt: (1) disproof the predicate facts on which the allegation of unlawful command influence is based; (2) persuasion of the military judge that the facts do not constitute unlawful command influence; or (3) proof at trial that the unlawful command influence will not affect the proceedings.

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Specific legal rules and provisions

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Court's holding and analysis

The NMCCA stated that the military judge must act in order to avoid even the appearance of UCI in his courtroom. The judge must asses this question ‘objectively’: would an objective, disinterested observer, fully informed of all the facts and circumstances, harbor a significant doubt about the fairness of proceedings (p. 8)?

The NMCCA had to assess whether the NMCTJ erred in its assessment regarding the presence of apparent UCI (p. 10) and it concluded that the first ruling was correct. The Government had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the evidence of UCI was unfounded. The Government only referred to statements made by Mattis and Ewers to proof that Ewers had not influenced the CDA. However, the NMCTJ considered that even if Ewers had not influenced Mattis directly, the Government had left up to doubt whether Ewers had influenced the CDA’s legal advisers, the MARCENT SJA’s. Ewers had been present in CDA meetings, and no member of the MARCENT SJA office was called to testify on Ewers possibly influencing them (pp. 9-10). Thereby, the Government had not met the burden of proof and thus, the NMCTJ had acted in accordance with its discretion to dismiss the charges.

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Further analysis

In an interesting article for those interested in law and/or film, Dungan compares the typical portrayal of military justice in film, including unlawful command influence, to reality.

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Instruments cited

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Additional materials

The media played a significant role in the Army initiating an investigation into the Haditha incidents. Some compared Haditha to My Lai. The proceedings against eight marines, including Chessani, were closely watched by the media. Most recently, the guilty plea of Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, the only one to be sentenced for his role in the Haditha incident, gave cause to news reports on Iraqi feelings of injustice. Others argued against this, stating that these cases proved the integrity of the US legal system.

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Social media links

Several blogs made apparent the sensitivity of the subject of prosecuting soldiers for acts committed during the war in Iraq. Others showed disappointment on what they perceived as lack of justice for the victims of the Haditha incidents.