Navy SEAL found not guilty of murder charges

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SAN DIEGO -- A Navy SEAL was acquitted in San Diego Tuesday of murder and other charges stemming from various alleged war crimes, including the fatal stabbing of a wounded teenage ISIS fighter and shootings of Iraqi civilians.

Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher was acquitted of six of the seven charges he was facing. A jury of five Marines and two Navy men convicted Gallagher solely of posing with the teen's body in a photograph.

Shouts of "Free Eddie" rang out as Gallagher's friends and family stepped out of a military courtroom. One of Gallagher’s attorneys celebrated his acquittal on the most serious charges with a fist pump as he walked towards the cluster of news cameras.

“Suffice it to say: huge victory!” said attorney Marc Mukasey.  “A huge weight is off the Gallaghers -- a huge victory for justice.”

The verdict means Gallagher will walk away a free man. The charge for which he was convicted carries a maximum sentence of four months behind bars, which he has already served.

Gallagher, 40, could have faced up to 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 was acquitted of charges including murder, attempted murder, willful discharge of a firearm and obstruction of justice. The jury began weighing Gallagher's fate Monday afternoon, following a full day of closing arguments at the Naval Base in San Diego.

Prosecutor Jeff Pietrzyk said in his closing argument that despite a lack of physical evidence, text messages and pictures Gallagher took with the teen's body are direct evidence of his guilt.

"Good story behind this one. Got him with my hunting knife," read one of the text messages Gallagher allegedly sent to a colleague. "I got a cool story for you when I get back. I got my knife skills on."

Prosecutors alleged that once Gallagher received word of the prisoner, who was injured in an air strike, Gallagher said, "No one touch him. He's mine."

As Gallagher and others tended to the teen, he allegedly pulled out a hunting knife and stabbed the boy multiple times, prosecutors argued. He was also accused of shooting two civilians, whose bodies were never recovered, just over a month later and opening fire on a crowd of other civilians from a sniper's nest.

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

His attorney, Timothy Parlatore, said the SEALs who reported Gallagher were lying, and he contended the government was relying entirely on their word in the face of a complete absence of physical evidence that any of the charged events ever occurred.

"No body, no forensics, no science, no evidence, no case," Parlatore said during his closing arguments.

The attorney emphasized that in addition to no bodies being recovered, no blood was ever seen on Gallagher or the hunting knife, despite photographs taken shortly after the stabbing allegedly happened. Without a body, a forensic expert testifying as an expert witness was unable to determine the teen's cause of death based solely on video footage of the boy's injuries.

In surprise testimony during the trial, First Class Petty Officer Corey Scott, testified that he suffocated the wounded ISIS fighter after Gallagher stabbed the teen in the neck. Scott said he held down the boy's breathing tube because he did not want him to suffer or be tortured by Iraqis.

But Navy prosecutors said Gallagher's text messages, particularly the wording of "Got him with my hunting knife," was evidence of his admission to the murder.

"The government's evidence in this case comes from Chief Gallagher's words, Chief Gallagher's actions and Chief Gallagher's SEALs," Pietrzyk said.

Parlatore argued that several SEALs posed with the ISIS fighter's body and likened the text messages to "dark humor" that in no way proved Gallagher killed the teen.

According to Parlatore, SEAL Chief Craig Miller led the "sewing circle" campaign against Gallagher because other SEALs didn't agree with his tactics.

The attorney said their efforts to discredit and remove Gallagher from his post began with accusations that he was stealing from care packages. When those allegations didn't gain traction, Parlatore said the group escalated their claims bit by bit until eventually accusing Gallagher of murder.

Parlatore also accused the government of conducting a shoddy investigation that began with the foregone conclusion that Gallagher was guilty, and overlooked witnesses who might contradict that viewpoint.

Prosecutors alleged that Gallagher threatened fellow SEALs over the allegations, and posted their names in private Navy social media groups in order to out them as traitors and sabotage their chances at career advancement.

But Gallagher's attorneys argued he was simply trying to clear his name amid the volatile claims made against him, and that divulging the names of the men spreading malicious rumors was a means of warning fellow SEALs who might serve with those men in the future.

The trial was 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 -- a 19-year Navy veteran -- 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. Trump also hinted at pardoning him if he was convicted.

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.

Hunter celebrated the acquittals and reproached the Navy in a statement released Tuesday afternoon.

"The Gallagher case has been shameful from the start," according to Hunter, who said that despite the result, the trial was "nothing short of a disgrace for the entire military system.

"On very circumstantial and limited physical evidence, the Navy felt it appropriate to charge Chief Gallagher with the murder of an ISIS terrorist, accomplishing nothing but destroying the military career of a decorated Navy SEAL and giving every warfighter cause for concern that the nation they serve does not have their back," he said.

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