A general court martial began Friday in a San Diego military courtroom where a U.S. Navy SEAL, accused of multiple war crimes, was formally arraigned on charges he killed a wounded ISIS combatant and shot civilians during a 2017 deployment to Mosul, Iraq.

The most serious charge against Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward R. Gallagher, 39, originally from Ft. Wayne, Indiana, is premeditated murder. Prosecutors say Gallagher killed a wounded teenage IS fighter by stabbing him in the neck with his knife. Gallagher, who is a medic, was treating the fighter at the time.

The charge carries a mandatory life sentence under the military justice system.

Gallagher was also charged with two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, charges linked to the shooting of two civilians. The charge sheet produced by Navy prosecutors described the civilians as a male and a female, and attorneys have referred to the pair as an old man and a girl.

Other charges levied against the decorated Navy SEAL stem from allegations he shot at civilians on several occasions during the deployment and, once back in the United States, that he attempted to intimidate witnesses when he learned they were cooperating with Navy investigators in the case.

Attorneys for Gallagher told reporters after the hearing that the SEAL's actions that day in Iraq did not the cause the fighter's death.

“The question in what he's being charged with is, 'Did he murder anyone?'” said Colby Vokey, one of Gallagher's attorneys. “No, he didn't murder anyone.”

Neither Vokey nor Gallagher's other civilian attorney, Phillip Stackhouse, would comment on whether Gallagher stabbed the fighter in the neck, only saying he did not murder him.

Attorneys filed a motion to release Gallagher from the Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar, where he has been confined since his arrest Sept. 11, but a ruling is not expected until early next week.

The trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 19.

The defense called several witnesses Friday in an attempt to convince the judge, Navy Capt. Aaron Rugh, that Gallagher was not a flight risk, nor was he a threat to obstruct justice by attempting to intimidate witnesses.

Navy prosecutors submitted 1,700 pages of text messages and eyewitness statements, then declined to discuss evidence with reporters.

Gallagher's defense attorneys, who also declined to discuss certain aspects of the case, conceded that some of those text messages might appear to indicate that, during the summer of 2018, Gallagher attempted to enlist the help of friends in and around the SEAL community to publicize the names of the SEALs who were cooperating with Navy investigators.

They said Gallagher figured out who was cooperating because a search warrant, provided to Gallagher when his home at Lincoln Military Housing at Liberty Station was raided, included the initials of those witnesses.

“There are text messages that we have been provided that indicate that Eddie might have sent some text messages out saying that these individuals who are making the allegations against him are lying…and people should know they are lying,” Vokey said after the hearing.

Stackhouse said that these text messages were what lead authorities to keep Gallagher in the brig while awaiting trial.

Navy Cmdr. Paul Sargent, the site director for the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury site at Navy Hospital Camp Pendleton, testified via telephone regarding treatment Gallagher was receiving for mild traumatic brain injury at the time of his arrest.

According to Sargent, Gallagher had sustained 18 concussions before and during his time in the Navy, and that this might affect his impulse control. He also said Gallagher would be welcomed back into the program were he to be released from the brig.

Colleagues of Gallagher from the San Diego SEAL community also testified on his behalf. Three SEALS — two of them master chiefs, the other a senior chief — and a senior chief ordnance disposal technician each told the judge Gallagher was of outstanding character and that he was not a flight risk.

His wife, Andrea Gallagher, also took the stand. She told the judge she'd known Gallagher since she was 16 and he was 17, and that the couple reconnected years later, marrying in 2007.

Gallagher had about a dozen supporters in attendance.

Congressman Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, also expressed his support for Gallagher Friday.

During the hearing, the congressmen released a statement calling the Navy's prosecution of Gallagher “another example of the over-aggressiveness of the Navy JAG Corp (sic) showing its bias against our warfighters.”

Hunter also called on President Trump to intervene.

“Due to verifiable political nature of the Navy's justice system, I believe that Chief Gallagher's matter needs to be taken away from the Navy,” Hunter's statement said, “and President Trump himself needs to personally review and dismiss this case, taking an American hero out of a prison cell and back on the front lines where he belongs.”

A Pentagon spokeswoman was not able to comment Friday on the authority of the president to take action in this or any case. Hunter has offered similar criticism of the civilian Department of Justice, which is prosecuting Hunter on charges of stealing $250,000 in campaign funds along with his wife and former campaign manager, Margaret. Both have pleaded not guilty.


©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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