BY MIKE FAHER
In May 2006, six months after 24 people were killed in a small Iraqi town, U.S. Rep. John Murtha made a startling accusation.
American soldiers, he contended, had killed innocent civilians “in cold blood.”
Now, less than six weeks before the longtime Johnstown Democrat is up for re-election, a Marine involved in the now-infamous Haditha incident is suing Murtha for slander.
Justin Sharratt of Canonsburg, Washington County, left the Marine Corps last year. But he claims Murtha’s statements have caused “permanent, irreversible damage to his reputation.”
“What Murtha did is outrageous, and I am seeking punitive damages,” said Noah Geary, a Pittsburgh attorney representing Sharratt.
The lawsuit was filed Thursday in federal court in Pittsburgh.
It includes Murtha’s statements from nationally televised interviews in 2006, including an exchange during a CNN interview with anchor Wolf Blitzer.
“There was an (improvised explosive device) attack, it killed one Marine, and then they overreacted and killed a number of civilians without anybody firing at them,” Murtha told Blitzer.
“That’s what you’re going to find out.”
At this point, though, seven of the eight servicemen charged in the incident have been cleared.
Geary said Sharratt was charged with three counts of unpremeditated murder but later was exonerated.
Sharratt, 24, was honorably discharged from the Marines, Geary said.
The lawsuit claims Murtha violated Sharratt’s constitutional rights to presumption of innocence and due process of law.
While Geary acknowledged that the congressman never mentioned his client by name, he said media reports did identify Sharratt. And the effects have been long-lasting, the attorney said.
“People see that on TV,” Geary said. “It becomes truth – it becomes a fact.”
He added that “Justin has had people approach him, giving him a hard time” in reference to Haditha.
And the suit says Sharratt has lost “significant employment opportunities” and “significant associational opportunities.”
Murtha, through a spokesman, offered no comment Thursday.
But when a different Haditha Marine filed a lawsuit against him in 2006, Murtha said he simply wanted to focus attention on troops who were “caught in the middle of a tragic dilemma” in war-torn Iraq.
“When I spoke up about Haditha, my intention was to draw attention to the horrendous pressure put on our troops in Iraq and to the cover-up of the incident,” Murtha said at the time.
The 2006 lawsuit is ongoing.
It was filed by Frank D. Wuterich, the only Marine not yet cleared in the Haditha incident.
Wuterich has pleaded not guilty to voluntary manslaughter charges, The Associated Press reported.
Haditha has become a political issue in western Pennsylvania.
Diana Irey, a Republican Washington County commissioner, often spoke of the Haditha Marines during her unsuccessful 2006 campaign against Murtha.
Republican William Russell, challenging Murtha this year, has resurrected the theme.
In fact, Russell’s campaign Web site features a “personal video message” from Justin Sharratt’s father, Darryl. And Russell’s only television ad has focused on Murtha’s Haditha comments.
Geary denied that Sharratt’s lawsuit is connected in any way to the Russell campaign.
Instead, he said, the legal action must be filed now because a statute of limitations for slander lawsuits is about to expire.
“There’s no political motivation whatsoever,” Geary said. “This is purely a legal endeavor.”
Nevertheless, Russell issued a statement on Sharratt’s lawsuit Thursday.
“I sincerely hope that Congressman Murtha will use this opportunity to admit his mistake and take responsibility for the harm his false accusations have done to Justin Sharratt and his family,” Russell said.
“Justin’s right to justice goes beyond politics.”
Murtha has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit.