SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Did decorated U.S. Navy SEAL Chief Ed Gallagher murder a teenage Islamic State fighter or is he being framed by mutinying sailors he commanded and who are testifying against him?
That is the question a seven-sailor jury must decide in Gallagher’s court martial, which began on Tuesday at the U.S. Naval Base in San Diego.
Prosecutors say Gallagher, 39, who began his 18-year career as a medic, briefly treated the young Islamic State fighter, then pulled out his knife and stabbed him in the neck several times.
Prosecutor Jeff Pietrzyk introduced a photo showing Gallagher holding the dead youth by the hair. “Then he celebrated that stabbing, celebrated the murder, when he took photos and performed his re-enlistment ceremony over that body,” Pietrzyk said.
Defense attorney Timothy Parlatore told the jury in his opening statement the prosecution cannot present a body or a crime scene and therefore no case.
“This is about a group of mutinous sailors and a sham investigation.”
Gallagher could face life in prison if convicted in the trial arising from his 2017 deployment to Mosul, Iraq.
The platoon leader is also charged with attempted murder in the wounding of two civilians - a schoolgirl and an elderly man - shot from a sniper’s perch in Iraq.
He maintains fellow SEAL team members in his platoon, who turned him in and are testifying against him under grants of immunity, are disgruntled subordinates who fabricated allegations to force him from command.
The court martial has drawn national attention - including that of President Donald Trump who said last month that he is considering pardons for a number of military service members accused of war crimes, and Gallagher’s case was believed to be one of those under review.
Gallagher, a career Navy officer, was on his eighth deployment, this time to Iraq where SEALs were training Iraqi military as they pushed Islamic State fighters out of Mosul in a fight that went block by block through the war ravaged city.
Iraqi forces came across the Islamic State fighter after he had been shot in the leg and was struggling to breathe during the fighting in Mosul. They tied him to the hood of a Humvee before driving two hours to their operating base, where he was placed on the ground and died 20 minutes later.
It was there, the prosecution says, that Gallagher stabbed the fighter to death. There’s no video from the helmet-cameras troops in the field wear, but some video was deleted, according to testimony from one of the prosecution’s witnesses, Lieutenant Thomas MacNeil. He was one of those in the group photo showing Gallagher holding the dead fighter up by hair.
“Is the photo (of the group with the dead youth) in
poor taste? Probably. Is it evidence of a murder? No,” Parlatore said.
Reporting by Marty Graham in San Diego; Additional reporting by Rich McKay; editing by Lisa Shumaker