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Neal Puckett is an Alexandria, Va., military criminal defense lawyer representing Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, one of the Marines charged with murder in connection with the killing of Iraqis in Haditha. A former military trial judge, Puckett sat down at the Army and Navy Club with Legal Times Emma Schwartz to discuss Haditha and the military-justice system.
LT: When did you first meet Sergeant Wuterich? Puckett: I first met him in early June of 2006. I went out to Camp Pendleton [in California] and spent two full days interviewing him, a total of 12 to 13 hours, basically going over what happened to him . . ., trying to get a sense of what Haditha was all about from his perspective.
LT: You said that you came away from your meeting with Sergeant Wuterich with the feeling that he believed he was really following the rules of engagement. Is that going to be the centerpiece of the defense in this case? Puckett: Not so much following orders, but following the training they had received in preparation for that deployment and also following what they believed were the principles associated with the rules of engagement.
LT: Are you saying the policy was not related clearly to the lower-level officials? Puckett: I think there’s a possibility that what the Marines understood what they were allowed to do was be a little bit more aggressive than what the official rules would have permitted them to be. . . . I think we’re going to find that the training Marines receive, no matter how tailored it is to an individual environment, still is going to always run the risk of collateral damage. For instance, there was no member of that squad who was carrying nonlethal ammunition like rubber bullets or tear gas.
LT: Are they not allowed to have these things? Puckett: Oh no, they are not. It’s just not part of the training and not part of the tactics that have been employed by Marines. So if you have to make a split-second decision about whether to fire or to use a hand grenade to protect your own life, it’s not, “Do we have any intermittent step we can take?”
LT: Do you think that’s because the nature of how people are acting in this war is different? Puckett: I think the training may be lacking, and I’m not sure there is a fail-safe solution for fixing training because the Marines constantly saw snipers firing from occupied noncombative buildings like mosques, and that makes combat decisions very difficult — to separate the good guys from the bad guys — because there are no uniforms.
LT: I understand that unlike other military lawyers, you make it a point to look at public opinion in your cases. Puckett: I have come to realize, because of such widespread support for military members, sometimes a little publicity and a little support, even if it doesn’t produce concrete results on the system . . . it’s going to be very important. If they’re acquitted, great. And if they are convicted and serve some punishment, well, when that’s over, better to be thought of as someone who maybe made a bad decision as opposed to someone who intentionally murdered women and children. So, I think it’s the public perception of how the military justice system works [that] can be very important — not only to my clients, but also to the legitimacy of the system. A lot of people don’t realize that court-martials are federal criminal prosecutions with all the attendant consequences.
LT: How much are the defendants coordinating? Are the other lawyers working together on this? Puckett: No. We have very similar interests and we’re all similarly situated, but we’re not working together.
LT: How many people do you have working on this case? Puckett: There is going to be Mark [Zaid] and me, two military attorneys, appointed, and a Marine who is a legal specialist, who is going to help us get whatever we need by the way of document reproduction or some research. So that’s a lot of people and kind of impressive for a Marine Corps defense. Usually there is only one military lawyer and me, that’s it.
Working Lunch appears every other week in Legal Times .

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