ARLINGTON, Va. — A Court of Inquiry will look into whether special operations Marines overreacted and killed 19 Afghan civilians following a March 4 ambush, a Marine Corps news release says.

The Marines allegedly shot at any perceived threat for miles after a suicide bomber in a minivan hit their convoy, injuring one Marine.

The event prompted the Army general in charge of Special Operations Command-Central Command to expel the entire 120-man company of Marines from Afghanistan by the end of March.

The company commander and a senior enlisted Marine were also relieved of duty, and six of the company’s members were sent back to Camp Lejeune, N.C.

The Court of Inquiry will look at facts and evidence collected by investigators and “any other available sources of information,” said the news release from U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Central Command, or MARCENT.

A Court of Inquiry is an “administrative fact-finding process,” not a criminal proceeding, the news release says. It will include at least three senior commissioned officers with combat experience.

After reviewing the evidence, the Court of Inquiry will present its findings to the commander of MARCENT, Lt. Gen. James Mattis, who will “make a decision regarding the disposition of the incident,” the news release says.

Such courts of inquiry are very rare, said Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice and a military law practitioner in Washington.

Courts of inquiry are convened to look into very serious incidents that can include the loss of life, such as when the submarine USS Greeneville collided with and sank a Japanese fish training vessel in 2001, Fidell said in an e-mail Thursday to Stars and Stripes.

“If the COI [Court of Inquiry] affords the interested parties rights comparable to those required for an Article 32 pretrial investigation, the COI can be treated as an Article 32 investigation, and the convening authority can use it to determine whether charges should be referred to trial by general court-martial,” Fidell said.

Mattis’ decision to call a Court of Inquiry shows how seriously he views this matter, Fidell said.

“The impact of an incident on relations with a friendly power is one reason to convene a COI,” Fidell said. “The Greeneville COI illustrates that.”

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