The Marine Corps announced it has dropped all charges against a sergeant accused in the killings of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha, the deadliest criminal case to emerge from the Iraq war.
Sergeant Sanick Dela Cruz, 24, had been charged with unpremeditated murder and could have received up to life in prison for the deaths of five Iraqi civilians in the Nov. 19, 2005, killings. He also faced one charge of making a false official statement with intent to deceive.
The Marine Corps offered no explanation for the decision made on Tuesday by Lieutenant General James Mattis, the officer overseeing the case.
Dela Cruz has been given immunity and must testify at upcoming hearings for other Marines charged in the Haditha case. Still, it is highly unusual for such serious charges to be completely dismissed. In such cases, it is far more usual for a plea deal to be struck where charges and penalties are reduced in return for testimony.
On the day of the killings, a Camp Pendleton, California-based Marine squad was running a mission in Haditha, a town west of Baghdad. The squad's convoy was rocked by a roadside bomb blast and one Marine was killed. In the aftermath of the explosion, the Marines killed 24 Iraqis, including women and children.
Dela Cruz and three other Marines were charged in December with unpremeditated murder in the deaths and four officers were charged with dereliction of duty for failing to adequately investigate what had happened.
The Marines have maintained their innocence, saying they believed they were under attack and followed proper procedures to defend themselves.
Dela Cruz could be a key witness for the prosecution. However, it is not clear whether his testimony will undermine his fellow Marines' claims or support them.