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¶ See the charging document against Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich — one of eight Marines charged in last year’s Haditha killings — here. (PDF format)

WASHINGTON — Even though charges were filed Thursday against eight Marines in last year’s Haditha killings, military legal experts expect that a final resolution is still months away.

The actual trials won’t begin until after Article 32 hearings, the military equivalent of a grand jury proceeding, where prosecutors will interview the defendants and witnesses to determine what the final charges should be. That must take place within 120 days, unless the defense asks for more time.

If the allegations against the men are upheld, the charges still must go through an administrative review before trials can begin. That will be done by the commanding general assigned to the case, who will verify the charges are warranted or suggest less serious charges.

Even without other delays, trials might not start until May, the experts said.

The most serious charges facing the group are the unpremeditated murder allegations leveled against four enlisted Marines. Unlike premeditated murder, that crime does not carry the possibility of the death penalty.

Kathleen Duignan, executive director of the National Institute of Military Justice, said officials must show clear intent well before the crime to seek premeditated murder charges, and in this case they clearly felt they lacked the proof that that advance planning was involved.

“But [unpremeditated murder] is not a light charge,” she said. “The only thing off the table is the death penalty. They could all still face life in prison.”

Although the defendants won’t go to prison in the immediate future, Thursday’s charges are still a serious blow to them in the military legal process, according to Kevin Barry, a retired Coast Guard captain and former military judge.

“These seem to be reasonable, thought-out charges,” he said. “I’ve seen cases where people were more aggressive in their charges to try to gain some tactical advantage, but that’s not what’s going on here.”

The defendants will have a chance to review exactly what evidence investigators have compiled against them once the Article 32 hearing begins.

Scott Silliman, a military law expert and professor at Duke University’s Law School, said unlike grand juries in civilian courts, which are usually secret until the end, the military’s pretrial review is open to the defense and the general public, and give the attorneys a chance to rebut the prosecution’s allegations.

“These guys actually have more rights there than they would in the civilian courts,” he said.

That’s also when defense attorneys will begin considering plea bargain offers, if they haven’t already, Silliman said.

With eight defendants, some charged with lesser offenses likely will consider deals, Duignan said, “but the ones facing the strongest charges likely won’t see any good offers.”

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