By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – Military jurors reconvened on Wednesday to decide on sentencing for a U.S. Navy SEAL sniper who they acquitted of murdering a captured Islamic State fighter but found guilty of unlawfully posing for photos with his dead body.
The court-martial of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher entered its final phase as U.S. President Donald Trump, who intervened months ago to order Gallagher freed from pretrial detention in a brig, hailed the platoon leader on his acquittal.
“Congratulations to Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher, his wonderful wife Andrea, and his entire family. You have been through much together. Glad I could help!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
A seven-member jury of U.S. Marines and Navy personnel found Gallagher not guilty on Tuesday of murder, attempted murder and other charges, including deliberately shooting at unarmed civilians and obstruction of justice. But he was convicted of posing for unofficial pictures with a human casualty.
That offense, stemming from photos he and fellow SEAL members took with the corpse of the Iraqi prisoner whom Gallagher was acquitted of slaying, carries a maximum sentence of four months’ imprisonment.
Gallagher, 39, would have faced a possible life sentence had he been found guilty of murder or attempted murder. He will presumably remain a free man since he gained credit for nearly seven months of time already served in pretrial custody.
The jury could impose other punishment, such as a demotion in rank with reduced pay and retirement benefits.
During a brief sentencing hearing following Tuesday’s verdict, jurors took testimony from two friends of Gallagher who spoke on his behalf as character witnesses.
The jury also heard from two doctors specializing in brain injuries. They said Gallagher suffered repeated concussions during his combat career, putting him at high risk of brain degeneration and visual impairments that will require ongoing medical attention.
The jury returned to the courthouse at U.S. Naval Base San Diego on Wednesday morning to deliberate sentencing.
Gallagher has categorically denied the most serious charges he faced, though he conceded posing for photos with the dead detainee.
Several fellow SEAL team members, testifying under grants of immunity, said Gallagher fatally stabbed the helpless teenage prisoner in the neck with a custom-made knife in the midst of efforts to treat the youth for grave wounds he suffered in an air strike. The captured ISIS fighter was considered a potential intelligence asset.
Gallagher also was charged with attempted murder in the wounding of two noncombatants – a school girl and an elderly man – shot from a sniper’s perch. He was accused of deliberately firing on other civilians as well.
Gallagher, who did not testify in his own defense, insisted his accusers were disgruntled subordinates with no prior battlefield experience and had fabricated allegations against him over grievances with his leadership style and tactics.
The chief petty officer was arrested in 2018, more than a year after returning from his eighth overseas deployment in Mosul, in northern Iraq.
Appearing on Fox News on Wednesday, Gallagher expressed thanks to two congressmen who have been outspoken supporters of his, as well as to Trump “for intervening when he did.”
Gallagher was moved in March from a military brig to less restrictive confinement at a Navy base at Trump’s behest in recognition of what the president called the decorated veteran’s “past service to our country.”
The court-martial judge later released Gallagher altogether, citing pretrial prosecutorial misconduct.
Trump said in May he was considering pardons for a number of U.S. military personnel accused of war crimes, and Gallagher’s case was widely believed to be one of those under review.
(Reporting by Marty Graham in San Diego, additional reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)