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Why Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher was found not guilty of murdering Iraqi captive

After two weeks of testimony, Chief Edward Gallagher was found not guilty of murdering a suspected ISIS prisoner in Iraq. The decorated Navy SEAL had been accused of stabbing the wounded teenage captive, as well as attempted murder of Iraqi civilians and obstruction of justice. William Brangham reports and talks to Steve Walsh of San Diego’s KPBS public radio about how the dramatic case evolved.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    After two weeks of testimony, Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher was found not guilty yesterday of murdering a suspected ISIS prisoner in Iraq.

    The decorated Navy SEAL had been accused stabbing the wounded teenage captive back in 2017.

    William Brangham has the story.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    In addition to being found innocent on the first-degree murder charge, Chief Gallagher was also found not guilty of attempted murder of Iraqi civilians and of obstruction of justice. The only thing he was convicted of was posing in a photo with the dead captive's body. For that, he was demoted one rank. He will serve no further jail time.

    Late last month, this trial took a dramatic turn when one of the prosecution's witnesses, Navy SEAL Corey Scott, testified that, after he saw Gallagher stab the teenager, Scott killed the captive by plugging his breathing tube. Scott claimed it was an act of mercy.

    Gallagher always maintained his innocence. And on Fox News this morning, flanked by his wife and lawyer, he reiterated his view that it was a group of disgruntled fellow SEALs who wanted to frame him.

  • Eddie Gallagher:

    I just want to make clear that this small group of SEALs that decided to concoct this story in no way, shape or form represent the community that I have, you know, loved and gave my soul to.

  • William Brangham:

    For more on this case, I am joined by Steve Walsh. He's been following the story for KPBS Public Media in San Diego, and he was there for the verdict and sentencing today.

    Steve Walsh, thank you very much for being here.

    You have been following this trial all along.

    Was your sense that this verdict was a surprise?

  • Steve Walsh:

    It was a surprise, in the sense that, yesterday, when the verdict came out, and he was acquitted six of the seven charges, and all six were the most serious charges, there was a great deal of jubilation. Gallagher was hugging his wife. They were very celebratory.

    So there was a feeling today that maybe Gallagher would serve no jail time at all, at least wouldn't get a sentence of any jail time. But, on this last charge, the least serious of the seven charges, the jury decided to give him the maximum sentence, which is this four months in jail, and they reduced him in rank from a chief petty officer to a petty officer 1st class.

    That's going to have implications on Gallagher's retirement. In fact, we were expecting Gallagher to come out and talk to us after the sentencing, but, instead, he and his wife got in the car and they drove away.

  • William Brangham:

    Gallagher was originally accused by fellow SEAL members, members of his own platoon, which, in and of itself, is sort of odd, given the historically tight-knit nature of the SEAL organization.

    They said that he went up in the sniper tower and shot at civilians. Several of them said that they saw him stab this alleged captive ISIS prisoner. How did Gallagher's team rebut those witnesses?

  • Steve Walsh:

    Well, Gallagher's team said that, essentially, they portrayed this as an investigation that was out of control, that had targeted Gallagher from the very beginning.

    The lead investigator for Naval Investigations, Joe Warpinski, he had only been with NCIS for two-and-a-half years before he got this incredibly high-profile war crimes case. They also portrayed the SEALs in Gallagher's platoon — Gallagher is 40 years old now. The rest of his platoon was much younger.

    On the stand, his attorney said — called them entitled young SEALs.

  • William Brangham:

    So, in addition to having those SEALs, who I guess their testimony was simply not believed by the jury, there was also this piece of evidence of texts that Gallagher had sent to a fellow SEAL.

    Apparently, he sent a photograph of the captive's body.

    And I wanted to read what these texts say. One of them said: "I have got a cool story for you when I get back. I have got my knife skills on." Another text said: "Good story behind this. Got him with my hunting knife."

    How did the defense team robot that bit of evidence?

  • Steve Walsh:

    Well, honestly, they didn't.

    I mean, if you think about this, this is something that happened in Iraq in 2017. They have no body in this case, very little forensic evidence. But the one thing that they did have were these photographs that Gallagher sent out to people in the United States and other members of the platoon with him posing with a knife up to the dead detainee.

    So, in the end, that was what he was convicted of.

  • William Brangham:

    But I guess the evidence citing — if Gallagher has a text that says, "I can't wait to tell you the story about this, I got him with my knife," how did Gallagher's team push that off?

  • Steve Walsh:

    Right.

  • William Brangham:

    Or did they just not address that?

  • Steve Walsh:

    Well, they addressed it in the sense of, they said that this was dark humor. They also have other texts where he threatens to kill his platoon.

    He turned to the jury of all members of the military, Marines and a couple — and one SEAL, as a matter of fact, and said, who among us had not had their commander threatened to kill them at one point or another?

  • William Brangham:

    And, lastly, there was this piece of sort of a bombshell development, where one of the prosecution's main witnesses, this medic who was there, says, after he saw Gallagher's stab the captive, it was he, the medic, who then killed the captive, not Gallagher.

    I mean, that's got to do something to your case, if your key witness sort of says, actually, the guy you think killed it didn't do it, I did it.

  • Steve Walsh:

    Exactly.

    This was a prosecution witness, not a — so, on cross-examination, that's when the defense brought this up. It played into their overall narrative that this was a sloppy investigation, they didn't ask the right questions to the right people at the right time.

    Now, of course, there was some conflicting testimony. One other Marine raider who was there also said that he saw no stab wounds on the dead body.

  • William Brangham:

    Lastly, we know that Gallagher's convicted of this one charge of posing with the photograph. What is next for Chief Gallagher?

  • Steve Walsh:

    Well, the way it works in military court, this will go to the convening authority for final approval of this sentence. And then his attorneys seem pretty eager to appeal this decision.

    They don't want this sentence of confinement on his record, if they can possibly avoid it. So we probably won't see the final outcome for a while. But, in the meantime, he had already served eight months in the brig. That was basically good time. So he served none of this four-month sentence, so he was able to drive off right after the — right after his case was over today.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Steve Walsh of KPBS in San Diego, thank you very much.

  • Steve Walsh:

    Thanks, William.

  • Correction:

    This story has been updated with the correct name of KPBS Public Media in San Diego.

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