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The Bergdahl trial drew powerful testimony and presidential commentary. What does that mean for sentencing?

The sentencing phase for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl court martial is nearing its end. Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban in 2009 after walking away from a military outpost in Afghanistan, pled guilty to severe charges including desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Richard Oppel Jr. of The New York Times about the searing testimony and what comes next.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The sentencing phase of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's court-martial neared its end today at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

    The soldier pled guilty to severe charges, including desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, which could carry heavy prison terms. Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban in 2009 after he walked away from a military outpost in Eastern Afghanistan. He was held in captivity for five years.

    The Obama administration engineered a controversial prisoner swap with the Taliban in 2014 for his release.

    For more on Bergdahl and the searing testimony at his sentencing hearing, we turn now to New York Times reporter Richard Oppel at Fort Bragg.

    So, the defense has made their case. What was it?

  • Richard Oppel Jr.:

    Well, that's right, Hari.

    The case has a couple of problems for the defense. One is that Bergdahl has already paid a huge price for what happened, five years of horrific torture, being beaten by copper cables constantly, constant dysentery and diarrhea, locked in a cage for four years.

    They also are presenting mental health testimony that he's had a severe mental disorder for some time, including, in their view, when he both was in — briefly in the Coast Guard at boot camp and then when he enlisted in the Army.

    They have also put on testimony that, when he returned after the prisoner swap in 2014, even though he didn't have any sort of promise of protection from prosecution, he was emphatically helpful to intelligence analysts, to debriefers from the Pentagon, to anybody in the U.S. government who wanted to talk to him about Taliban tactics, about his captors, and anything of that nature.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The prosecution still has an opportunity to rebut. But during their side of the case, they brought on some of the family members and some of the members who were injured in the process of trying to rescue Bergdahl.

  • Richard Oppel Jr.:

    That's right.

    They had powerful testimony, mainly about one rescue operation, or one mission where a team of six men with some Afghan troops, six American men, were trying to gather information from local villagers about where Bergdahl might be. This was a little over a week-and-a-half — I'm sorry, a little over a week after Bergdahl had left his base.

    And one of the men, a sergeant 1st class, was shot in the head. He now is unable to speak, read, write, communicate in any way, or even take care of himself. And two other men were wounded on that mission. But the most profound injuries were of this one sergeant 1st class, a National Guardsman from Georgia, named Mark Allen.

    So there was a lot of testimony about his injuries, and also testimony from his wife, Shannon, about how much, you know, everything changed enormously for their family, for their two kids and for her.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What about Bergdahl's decision to plead guilty to this? How did this change at all?

  • Richard Oppel Jr.:

    Well, to a lot of military law experts, a conviction was almost certain, in large part due to the fact that Bergdahl had talked extensively to Army investigators and really actually had answered every question put to him by Army investigators.

    So the prosecution already had an enormous amount of evidence through Bergdahl's own words to convict him on. So, by pleading guilty, you know, what he was doing was basically, you know, in the view of a lot of military law experts, that this was basically a gamble, that he's taking absolute contrition and responsibility for what he did, again, in hopes of demonstrating to the judge, who will decide his punishment, that he has absolutely taken responsibility for what he's done.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know, did the president's comments, both before and after he was elected, factor into this?

  • Richard Oppel Jr.:

    Yes, so, the comments, the very inflammatory comments that the president had as a candidate, the judge had ruled in February that, while they were disturbing comments, he didn't think they had prejudiced the case, even though Trump had obviously been elected, and, as commander in chief, was now in charge of everybody in the military justice system.

    But then, a couple of weeks ago, right after Bergdahl entered his pleas, Trump said words to the effect of, look, I can't comment on the case, you know, it's about to go before a sentencing hearing, but I think everyone, you know, knows what I have said in the past about that.

    And so the judge ruled that, you know, he was effectively trying to say to people, you know, everyone — you know, people know how I feel about this, and I haven't changed my opinion.

    So, on the one hand, the judge didn't find that the comments, however, had prejudiced the case, because, A, he is a decision maker, and said he was uninfluenced by his comments, and the judge pointed out that he is actually going to retire next year. But he also felt that the public had not — you know, their view of the military justice system had not been really harmed, that perception had not been harmed by the comments.

    However — and this is the key thing — the judge said he will take the comments — he will consider the comments as mitigation evidence when he decides the sentence. It's not clear how much weight he will give those comments, maybe a little, maybe a lot, but they will be one factor in sentencing that could help Bergdahl receive a lighter sentence.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Richard Oppel of The New York Times, joining us from North Carolina, thanks so much.

  • Richard Oppel Jr.:

    Thank you, Hari.

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