The sergeant saw the charred and mangled remains of a fellow Marine killed by a roadside bomb only moments before he instructed his squad to “shoot first, ask questions later” in what would become one of the Iraq war’s most horrific episodes of civilian deaths, military prosecutors say.

Both the prosecution and defense agree the bomb explosion that killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas in the Iraqi town of Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005, influenced Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich’s decisions that day.

The debate during the case’s trial this month is over whether Wuterich reacted appropriately as a Marine squad leader in protecting his troops in the midst of a chaotic war or whether he went on a vengeful rampage, disregarding combat rules and leading his men to shoot and blast indiscriminately at Iraqi men, women and children.

In the end, 24 Iraqis were killed after the Marine squad cleared several homes in Haditha with grenades and gunfire that day.

At least one of Wuterich’s squad members is expected to testify for the prosecution today, the second day witnesses will take the stand before the all-Marine jury at Camp Pendleton in one of the biggest criminal cases against U.S. troops to emerge from the war.

Prosecutors in their opening statement Monday implicated Wuterich in 19 of the 24 deaths, painting a picture of a young Marine with no prior combat experience losing control after seeing his friend’s body blown apart.

They showed jurors — all of whom have combat experience in Iraq — graphic pictures of bodies, including the faces of men shot at mid-range who were in a car near the scene of the bomb attack, and described how Wuterich stood at the foot of a bed of a frightened woman and children in one of the home’s back bedrooms and sprayed them with bullets.

Maj. Nicholas Gannon said the evidence will show Wuterich “never lost control of his squad … but he made a series of fatal assumptions and he lost control of himself.”

Wuterich is charged with nine counts of voluntary manslaughter.

He has said he regretted the loss of civilian lives but believed he was operating within military combat rules.

Wuterich’s lawyers said the squad was under small arms fire and Wuterich believed insurgents were in the homes. Attorney Haytham Faraj asked jurors to apply their Marine Corps knowledge and combat experience and imagine how they would react after the deadly blast, blinded by the debris and believing to be under attack.

Faraj, a retired Marine, told the jury of four enlisted men and four officers that Wuterich’s orders were meant to urge Marines not to hesitate in reacting.

He also told jurors not to be swayed by Wuterich’s squad members who testify against him, accusing the government of buying them off by offering to dismiss the charges against them.

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