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 had credit for nearly seven months of time already served in pretrial custody, so he would presumably remain a free man. But he could face other punishment, such as a demotion in rank and reduced pay.
Gallagher could have faced life in prison if found guilty of the most serious charge against him, premeditated murder.
Following the verdict, court was reconvened for a brief sentencing hearing, during which two friends of Gallagher, one of them a Navy special warfare veteran who served with him in combat, testified on his behalf as character witnesses.
The jury also heard from two doctors who specialize in brain injuries. They said Gallagher suffered 11 documented concussions during his combat career, putting him at higher risk of brain degeneration and visual impairments that will require ongoing medical attention.
Jurors were due to return on Wednesday morning to decide if any penalties are to be imposed.
Gallagher, 39, who did not testify in his own defense and has declined public comment since the court-martial began, told reporters after Tuesday’s proceedings, “I’m happy and thankful.” He added: “Thank God, the legal team and my wife.”
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 in 2017.
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 convicted on a charge 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 insisted that disgruntled subordinates with no prior battlefield experience fabricated allegations against him over grievances with his leadership style and tactics.
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 pretrial 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.
Reporting by Marty Graham in San Diego; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Chris Reese and Peter Cooney