Jury acquits U.S. Navy SEAL accused of murdering ISIS fighter

A military jury acquitted a decorated U.S. Navy SEAL of premeditated murder Tuesday in the killing of a wounded ISIS captive under his care in Iraq in 2017.

Edward Gallagher, 40, still faces charge of posing for photos with the dead captive

U.S. Navy SEAL Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, 40, leaves for a lunch break with his wife Andrea Gallagher during his trial at Naval Base San Diego in California on Tuesday. (John Gastaldo/Reuters)

A military jury acquitted a decorated U.S. Navy SEAL of premeditated murder Tuesday in the killing of a wounded ISIS captive under his care in Iraq in 2017.

Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher was cleared of all charges except for posing for photos with the dead body of the captive, in a verdict that is a major blow to military prosecutors.

Gallagher reacted with "tears of joy, emotion, freedom and absolute euphoria," defence lawyer Marc Mukasey said.

"Suffice it to say this is a huge victory," Mukasey said outside court. "It's a huge weight off the Gallaghers."

Gallagher, dressed in a white uniform and sporting a chest full of medals, told reporters outside court that he was "happy and grateful."

"I thank God, my legal team and my wife," he said.

He declined to address questions about his SEAL team. His lawyers said he might talk after the jury decides his sentence for the remaining charge, which could happen as early as Wednesday.

"We just want to celebrate today," said his wife, Andrea Gallagher.

Defence lawyers said Gallagher was framed by disgruntled platoon members who fabricated the allegations to oust their chief. They said there was no physical evidence to support the allegations.

But the prosecution argued Gallagher's own text messages and photos incriminated him. They included photos of Gallagher holding the dead militant up by the hair and clutching a knife in his other hand.

A text message Gallagher sent while deployed said "got him with my hunting knife."

The prosecution asserted the proof of Gallagher's guilt was in his own words, his own photos and the testimony of his fellow troops, while defence lawyers called the case a "mutiny" by entitled junior SEALs trying to get rid of a demanding chief. The defence repeatedly told the jury that there was no body, no forensic evidence and no blood found on the knife.

Speculation around allegations

The case offered a rare public glimpse into the deep division in the insular and highly revered SEAL community. Both sides told jurors that witnesses had lied on the stand and it was their duty to push through the evidence to find the truth. Gallagher, 40, did not take the stand.

The panel of five marines and two sailors, including a SEAL, had to weigh whether Gallagher, a 19-year veteran on his eighth deployment, went off the rails and fatally stabbed the war prisoner on May 3, 2017, as a kind of trophy kill, or whether he was the victim of allegations fabricated after the platoon returned to San Diego to stop him from getting a Silver Star and being promoted.

Under the military system, two-thirds of the jury need to agree to convict — in this case, five of seven jurors — or they must acquit. Military juries also have the option to convict on lesser charges, such as attempted murder.

Gallagher was also charged with attempted murder in the shooting of two Iraqi civilians, and four other charges that include the unlawful discharge of his firearm by shooting at non-combatants, wrongfully posing with a human casualty, impeding an investigation by discouraging platoon members from reporting his criminal actions and retaliating against those who did.

The two-week trial included the testimonies of nearly a dozen SEALs, including Special Operator Corey Scott, a medic like Gallagher, who told the court that he saw the chief stab the ISIS militant in the neck. But Scott stunned the court when he said he was the one who ultimately killed the prisoner, by plugging his breathing tube with his thumb as an act of mercy.

Seven SEALs said Gallagher unexpectedly stabbed the ISIS captive moments after he and the other SEAL medics treated the detainee, who was wounded in an airstrike that morning outside the city of Mosul, in northern Iraq. Two, including Scott, testified they saw Gallagher plunge his knife into the prisoner's neck.

Defence calls photos 'dark humour'

During the trial, it was revealed that nearly all the platoon members readily posed for photos with the dead prisoner and watched as Gallagher, a Bronze Star recipient, read his re-enlistment oath near the body in an impromptu ceremony.

Defence lawyers called the pictures of Gallagher clutching the corpse's hair and his texts about his knife skills just the dark humour of a warrior.

An Iraqi general who handed the wounded prisoner to the SEALs testified that Gallagher did not stab the boy. Marine staff sergeant Giorgio Kirylo said that after the militant died he moved the body to take a "cool guy trophy" photo with it and saw no stab wounds on his neck.

Gallagher's attorneys said there were a number of things that could have caused the militant's death, including internal injuries from the blast.

Most of the witnesses were granted immunity to protect them from being prosecuted for acts they described on the stand.

Lt. Jacob Portier, the officer in charge, has been charged separately for overseeing the re-enlistment ceremony and not reporting the alleged stabbing.

The trial followed months of turmoil in one of the U.S. navy's most prominent war cases, including the removal of the navy's lead prosecutor after it was discovered the prosecution had tracked the emails of the defence team to find a news leak. In response, the judge lowered the maximum sentence Gallagher would face for premeditated murder to life in prison with parole, instead of without parole.