Lawyers tell radically different stories during opening statements in Navy SEAL murder trial

SAN DIEGO -- A Navy SEAL fatally stabbed a wounded teenage ISIS fighter in Iraq and fired on numerous Iraqi civilians, then intimidated and threatened fellow members of the elite force to prevent them from reporting him, a prosecutor alleged Tuesday, while a defense attorney said the prosecution's witnesses invented the allegations to get back at their commanding officer for bringing them closer to the line of fire than they wanted.

“This is not about murder, it’s about mutiny,” said Gallagher’s defense attorney. “This is a group of disgruntled sailors that didn’t like being told that they were cowards. So, they conspired to take down the Chief. They made up the story and that’s why we are here.”

Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, 40, faces life in prison if convicted of murdering the teen in May 2017, as well as shooting a male and female civilian, and shooting at an unknown number of other civilians later that year in Mosul, Iraq.

The highly decorated veteran is also accused of posing with the teen's body in a photograph, while he and other SEALs held a reenlistment ceremony while standing over the corpse. Navy prosecutors estimate that the ISIS fighter was about 15 years old.

In his opening statement in the trial being held at the Naval Base San Diego, Lt. Brian John told the jury of five Marines and two Navy members that Gallagher posed with the body and texted the photo to fellow SEALs.

"Good story behind this one. Got him with my hunting knife," one of the text messages read, according to John.

"He stabbed that wounded ISIS fighter to death, and then he celebrated that stabbing," the prosecutor said. "He celebrated that murder."

John said Gallagher was the first to treat the teen when the platoon first got word of an injured prisoner, who may have been wounded in an explosion.

"No one touch him. He's mine," Gallagher allegedly said when notified of the prisoner, who had suffered a collapsed lung and an unspecified leg injury.

Videos that will be shown to the jury show the moments just before the stabbing, according to John.

As Gallagher and others tended to the teen, he pulled out a hunting knife and "repeatedly stabbed the prisoner in the neck," John alleged. Afterward, Gallagher ran "a photoshoot," in which he encouraged other SEALs to pose behind him with the body, the prosecutor said. Many of the SEALs featured in the picture had no idea how the prisoner was killed, according to John.

Later that night, John said a meeting was convened, in which some of the other officers expressed reservations over what happened.

According to John, Gallagher's response was: "I thought everyone would be cool with it. Next time it happens, I'll do it somewhere where you can't see."

Gallagher is also accused of shooting an elderly man and a young girl on separate occasions later that summer, as the civilians were walking along the Tigris River. The prosecutor described what he alleged was Gallagher's propensity for firing on civilians, which led other snipers to begin firing warning shots "to protect civilians from their own chief."

Gallagher's defense team says the allegations come from a group of disgruntled subordinates who felt their platoon commander was too tough on them.

His attorney, Timothy Parlatore, said in his opening statement, "This case isn't about murder. It's about mutiny."

Parlatore said Gallagher's subordinates conspired against him because Gallagher brought them closer to combat than they wanted and they "didn't want to be exposed to enemy fire."

He said fellow SEALS unsuccessfully tried to go over Gallagher's head and questioned his tactics to his superiors. When that didn't work, he said they resorted to accusing him of petty theft.

When Gallagher came back home to commendations that included a Silver Star and a post as an urban combat instructor, Parlatore said his client's former platoon members were "defeated," leading them to begin circulating rumors of the murder. Parlatore said jurors would see text messages between the young SEALs, in which they talked about getting their stories straight, with some of the messages sent as soon as a few weeks before the trial began.

Parlatore said the jury will see right through it “especially once they read through all the text messages of these guys planning their stories with one guy threatening the others not to change their stories. I don’t think it will be that tough of a hill to climb.”

The attorney said the prosecution's witnesses videotaped and photographed nearly everything while they were overseas, yet somehow missed capturing the alleged murder.

With little to no physical evidence, Parlatore called the text messages Gallagher sent both the "single best and single worst piece of evidence" the prosecution has in the case.

He said a lack of blood on both the knife featured in the picture and Gallagher himself, which he argued should have been present if the picture was taken shortly after the killing.

"Is this photo in poor taste? Probably. Is it evidence of murder? No," Parlatore said.

John told the jury that once stories of Gallagher's conduct began to swirl, he began a campaign to intimidate and discredit his platoon mates, posting their names on social media, labeling them "cowards in combat," and actively attempting to sabotage their opportunities for career advancement.

Gallagher "systematically tried to intimidate those who had the courage to report him," the prosecutor alleged.

The trial has been dogged by allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, with the trial judge finding that Navy prosecutors used tracking software to spy on the defense team's email accounts.

The judge, Capt. Aaron Rugh, removed Cmdr. Chris Czaplak from the case just before the trial was set to begin, ruling the prosecution sent emails to the defense and a Navy Times reporter that were embedded with code that would track the recipients' email activity.

The judge also ordered that Gallagher be released from custody due to violations of his Fourth and Sixth Amendment rights and reduced the maximum possible sentence of life without parole to life with the possibility of parole.

Gallagher's defense team unsuccessfully sought to have the case thrown out following the email allegations.

Gallagher -- a 19-year Navy veteran -- has received public support from President Donald Trump, who commented in a social media post earlier this year that Gallagher should be moved to less restrictive confinement and has hinted at pardoning him.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, has also advocated pardoning Gallagher and stated publicly that he also posed with an enemy combatant's corpse during his time in the Marines.

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