(CN) – Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha is immune from a defamation lawsuit over statements he made to the press, allegedly accusing U.S. Marines of slaughtering 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in 2005, the D.C. Circuit ruled Tuesday. Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich said Murtha damaged his reputation by telling reporters that Wuterich and his fellow Marines massacred civilian men, women and children in cold blood in Haditha, Iraq, in November 2005.
On Nov. 19, 2005, a roadside bomb detonated, killing a member of Wuterich’s squad. Two dozen Iraqi civilians were killed in the ensuing fight. Iraqi witnesses said Marines slaughtered people in the street and in their homes to avenge their fallen comrade, Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas. Charges were brought against eight Marines, including four who were charged with murder. Many of the charges were later dropped.
In the wake of Haditha, Murtha gave a series of interviews to news outlets such as CNN and NPR. Wuterich said the congressman’s statements “provide the impression, implicitly or explicitly, that SSgt. Wuterich and others deliberately murdered innocent Iraqi civilians in a cold-blooded massacre” and “inappropriately compared the tragic events of Haditha with the infamous war crimes and deliberate wide-spread massacre of civilians at My Lai in Vietnam.”
Murtha invoked the Westfall Act, which extends absolute immunity to federal employees acting in the course of their official duties. He also pointed to the fact that the attorney general’s office had certified that his statements fell within the scope of his duties.
But the district court refused to certify the action under the Westfall Act pending discovery.
The federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., vacated the order denying certification and remanded with instructions to substitute the United States for Murtha as the defendant.
Senior Judge Edwards found insufficient evidence that Murtha’s actions clearly exceeded the scope of his employment.
Further, Edwards said the case should be dismissed, because “the United States has not waived its sovereign immunity for Wuterich’s tort claims.”