The trial of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, a decorated Navy SEAL platoon leader accused of killing an Islamic State prisoner in his custody, has begun in San Diego.
Chief Gallagher, 40, is on trial in a military courtroom, accused of war crimes dating back to 2017, during his fifth tour with the SEALs. The accusations include killing a teenaged captured ISIS fighter with a knife and shooting at unarmed Iraqi civilians, including a young girl. After the stabbing, he allegedly text messaged a fellow SEAL a photo of the dead body, saying, “Good story behind this, got him with my hunting knife.” He is pleading not guilty.
To date, his trial has been beset by conflicts and controversy. According to a Navy investigative report reviewed by the New York Times, Gallagher's SEAL subordinates first reported their concerns to the platoon commander, Lt. Jacob Portier, shortly after the alleged crimes took place in 2017. They reported that after they arrived in Mosul, he had "become frightening," proposing dangerous and unnecessary missions and frequently excessively carrying out sniper responsibilities.
Republicans in Congress have lobbied for Gallagher, claiming he’s an innocent war hero being unfairly prosecuted. https://t.co/TU102sSVj7— HuffPost Politics (@HuffPostPol) June 17, 2019
However, Lt. Portier did not act on the SEAL team's report for nearly one year, resulting in a complete lack of physical evidence. He is currently facing court-martial for failing to report possible war crimes.
The most junior member of the platoon, Petty Officer Second Class Ivan Villanueva, who initially said he was an eye witness to Gallagher stabbing the ISIS prisoner, has since declined to testify in court and now claims he does not have any evidence to contribute.
Adding to the controversy, evidence provided at hearings last month showed that the Navy’s lead prosecutor, Commander Christopher Czaplak and Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents sent emails embedded with tracking software to Gallagher's civilian defense attorneys and a journalist with the Navy Times in an unsuccessful attempt to determine the source of a series of leaks.
The judge presiding over the case, Captain Aaron Rugh, dismissed Czaplak from the case and replaced him with Commander Jeff Pietrzyk, an experienced Navy prosecutor.
Chief Gallagher's family claims he is being unfairly persecuted by subordinates who resented his leadership. They maintain his innocence and have worked closely with news outlets like the Navy Times in addition to some Republicans in Congress, who have lobbied on behalf of Gallagher.
The attorneys of Navy SEAL facing murder trial, Edward Gallagher, will try again to have the case dismissed after client was unexpectedly freed from custody, reports say.
Meet the man pushing the Trump administration to pardon combat veterans like Gallagher. pic.twitter.com/4xgdtsKQ8a— VICE News (@vicenews) May 31, 2019
President Trump has indicated that he is considering pardoning some service members who have been convicted or accused of war crimes, and Chief Gallagher is widely believed to be one of them.
Per the New York Times, “It’s a little bit controversial,” Trump told reporters on May 24. “It’s very possible that I’ll let the trials go on, and I’ll make my decision after the trial.” He added: “Some of these soldiers are people that have fought hard and long. You know, we teach them how to be great fighters, and then when they fight, sometimes they get really treated very unfairly.”
On a Facebook page where they share updates about his case, Gallagher's family posted: “Over the course of the trial we will expose the false narrative spread by these accusers for what it is … a smear campaign full of lies.”
In a statement, they also said that “The court’s ruling, recognizing a direct violation of Chief Gallagher’s constitutional rights but not dismissing the case, sends a chilling message to every man and woman in uniform."