SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – Closing arguments were due in San Diego on Monday in the war crimes trial of a decorated U.S. Navy SEAL platoon leader charged with murdering a helpless Iraqi captive in his custody and shooting unarmed civilians.
The court-martial of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher neared the conclusion of its trial phase after a bumpy two weeks of testimony for Navy prosecutors in a case that has drawn the attention of U.S. President Donald Trump.
The 39-year-old career combat veteran is charged with committing the premeditated murder of a captured Islamic State fighter, brought to Gallagher’s outpost for medical treatment, by repeatedly stabbing the teenage prisoner in the neck with a custom-made knife.
Gallagher also is charged with attempted murder in the wounding of two non-combatants – a schoolgirl and an elderly man – shot from a sniper’s perch, as well as with obstruction of justice and other offenses. Those include unlawfully posing for photos with the detainee’s corpse.
The chief petty officer could face life in prison if convicted.
Gallagher has denied all charges, insisting that disgruntled subordinates fabricated allegations against him because of grievances with his leadership style and combat tactics. The defense also asserts that prosecutors lack physical evidence to prove their case.
The Navy formally opened its investigation in September 2018, about a year after Gallagher’s platoon returned from its deployment to Mosul in northern Iraq.
In a surprise blow to the prosecution during the trial’s first week, a Navy SEAL medic testified that it was he, not Gallagher, who caused the death of the young Iraqi detainee by blocking his breathing tube in what the witness described as a mercy killing.
Prosecutors accused the medic of changing his story and raised the possibility of charging him with perjury.
Last week, two defense witnesses, an Iraqi general and a U.S. Marine sergeant who were present during the incident, insisted they never saw Gallagher or anyone else from the SEAL unit stab or otherwise mistreat the detainee before he died.
Another SEAL team member who acted as a sniper’s spotter for Gallagher testified he never saw the defendant shoot an unarmed elderly non-combatant.
Trump, who has said he has been considering pardons for a number of military personnel accused of war crimes, intervened in Gallagher’s case months ago, ordering that he be moved from pretrial detention in a military brig to confinement at a Navy base.
The presiding judge later released Gallagher from restrictions altogether in a rebuke to prosecutors for conduct the judge said had infringed on the Navy SEAL’s right to a fair trial.
Following closing arguments from prosecutors and defense lawyers, the case could go to the seven-member jury as early as Monday afternoon.
The jury consists of five Marines and two Navy personnel, all but one with combat experience. Six of the panelists are enlisted personnel and just one is an officer.
Reporting by Marty Graham in San Diego; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney