U.S. Navy SEAL acquitted of most serious charges in war crimes trial
4 July, 2019, 8:39 am
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – A U.S. Navy SEAL platoon leader accused of war crimes in Iraq was acquitted by a military jury on Tuesday of murder and all other charges except for unlawfully posing with the corpse of a captive Islamic State fighter.
The seven-member jury deliberated for about nine hours before delivering its verdict in the court-martial of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, a decorated career combat veteran whose case had drawn the interest of U.S. President Donald Trump.
The single offense of posing for unofficial pictures with a human casualty, in this case the remains of the Iraqi whom Gallagher was acquitted of killing, carries a maximum sentence of four months imprisonment.
Navy authorities said Gallagher has credit for nearly seven months of time already served in pre-trial custody, so he would presumably remain a free man. A sentencing proceeding began after the verdict to determine whether Gallagher faces any other punishment, such as a demotion in rank.
The case went to the jury of five U.S. Marines and two Navy personnel – all but one a combat veteran and only one of them an officer – as the trial phase of the court-martial entered its third week at the U.S. Naval Base San Diego.
Gallagher could have faced life in prison if found guilty of the most serious charge against him, premeditated murder. Several fellow SEAL team members testified he fatally stabbed the captured Iraqi prisoner in the neck with a custom-made knife after the teenage fighter was brought to Gallagher’s outpost for medical treatment.
Some of the same witnesses also said they saw Gallagher, who was originally trained as a medic, perform a number of emergency procedures on the detainee before he died.
Gallagher also was charged with attempted murder in the wounding of two unarmed civilians – a schoolgirl and an elderly man — shot from a sniper’s perch, as well as with firing deliberately on other non-combatants and with obstruction of justice.
He was found not guilty of all charges but the one stemming from the photos he and fellow SEAL team members took with the dead Islamic State fighter, who was brought to Gallagher’s camp by an Iraqi general after being badly wounded in an air strike.
Gallagher, 39, insisted that disgruntled subordinates with no prior battlefield experience fabricated allegations against him over grievances with his leadership style and tactics.
WHITE HOUSE WEIGHED IN
Trump intervened in Gallagher’s case months ago, ordering he be moved from pretrial detention in a military brig to confinement at a Navy base. The presiding judge later released Gallagher from custody altogether, in a rebuke to prosecutors for pre-trial conduct the judge said had infringed on the Navy SEAL’s right to fair proceedings.
The chief petty officer was arrested in 2018, more than a year after returning from his eighth overseas deployment in Mosul, in northern Iraq.
In a surprise blow to prosecutors during the first week of the trial, a Navy SEAL medic testified it was he, not Gallagher, who caused the death of the gravely injured prisoner by blocking his breathing tube, calling it a mercy killing.
Two defense witnesses – an Iraqi general and a U.S. Marine staff sergeant – later testified they never saw the Iraqi captive mistreated by anyone during the 20 minutes he spent alive in American custody.
The senior prosecutor, Navy Commander Jeffrey Pietrzyk, said in his closing arguments on Monday that Gallagher had implicated himself. He cited a photo that Gallagher sent to a friend in May 2017 showing him posed with the Iraqi detainee’s corpse, with the text message: “I got a cool story for you when I get back. I got him with my hunting knife.”
The defense countered that such exhibits fell far short of proving murder, and argued the prosecution lacked any physical evidence to substantiate the most serious charges.