WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump restored the rank Friday of a Navy SEAL court-martialed and acquitted in San Diego earlier this year on murder charges, with the White House stating his promotion was "justified" given his acquittal and "service to our nation."
Special Warfare Operator First Class Edward Gallagher was cleared by a military jury in July of fatally stabbing a wounded teenage ISIS fighter and shooting Iraqi civilians, but was demoted in rank after the same jury convicted him for posing for a photograph with the teen's corpse.
Trump, who pledged support for Gallagher throughout the criminal proceedings, signed an Executive Order of Clemency on Friday, restoring Gallagher to the rank of E-7, the rank he held prior to the verdict, which was delivered by a jury of five Marines and two Navy men.
Gallagher was accused of murdering the teen in May 2017, as well as shooting a male and female civilian whose bodies were never recovered and, just over a month later, opening fire on a crowd of civilians from a sniper's nest in Mosul, Iraq. He faced life imprisonment had he been convicted of all counts.
Gallagher's conviction carried a four-month sentence behind bars, but he had already served that time while awaiting trial. However, his rank demotion also affected his salary and pension.
The White House's statement noted Gallagher's many awards and accolades, including his selection for promotion to Senior Chief and his receipt of a Bronze Star with a "V" for valor.
Embattled Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, who also publicly supported Gallagher throughout his trial, called the order "a victory for our warfighters," and pledged he would "remain committed to fixing our broken military justice system."
Hunter, a former Marine, previously stated that he also posed with an enemy combatant's corpse during his time in the Marines, and chided military prosecutors at the time for charging Gallagher "on very circumstantial and limited" evidence, "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."
Navy prosecutors alleged Gallagher stabbed the wounded teen in the neck, then texted pictures of himself to his friends, in which he was seen smiling and holding the alleged murder weapon.
"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."
Gallagher's defense team countered 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.
Defense attorney Timothy Parlatore claimed a group of disgruntled subordinates reported Gallagher, their commanding officer, because they felt their platoon commander was too tough on them.
The attorney emphasized the lack of physical evidence to support the prosecution's position.
"No body, no forensics, no science, no evidence, no case," Parlatore said during his closing argument.
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.
The trial was also 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.