U.S. Navy SEAL accused of posing with dead ISIS captive avoids jail time
A military jury sentenced a decorated U.S. Navy SEAL to four months of confinement for posing with the body of an ISIS captive in Iraq in 2017, but a judge credited him with enough days to ensure he won't be locked up.
Hearing the sentence, Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher turned to his wife, shook his head and pretended to unpin his "anchors" — the insignia of a chief — and fling them across the courtroom. He then smiled and hugged her.
The sentence will not go into effect until it is approved by the commanding officer overseeing the court-martial.
Earlier, Gallagher addressed the jury that had acquitted him Tuesday of murder, attempted murder and other counts stemming from an incident during his 2017 deployment to Iraq, saying he "put a black eye" on the two communities he loves: the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy SEALs.
He said he tried to lead by example but didn't always succeed.
"I've made mistakes throughout my 20-year career — tactical, ethical, moral — I'm not perfect, but I've always bounced back from my mistakes," Gallagher said. "I'm ready to bounce back from this."
The jury reduced Gallagher's rank by one grade to petty officer 1st class and ordered his monthly pay to be cut by $2,697 US for four months.
The judge then modified the sentence, capping the pay cut at two months and giving Gallagher a credit of 60 days for being held in overly harsh conditions before being tried, as well as for being deprived of treatment for a traumatic brain injury.
Gallagher was also credited with 201 days of pretrial confinement.
A navy prosecutor had asked only for a reduction in rank, not confinement. The defence recommended no punishment.
Gallagher takes responsibility
Gallagher told the jury he was fully responsible for his actions on the day he took photos with the body of the 17-year-old militant. One image shows him clutching the hair of the corpse with one hand and holding a knife in another.
The photos were taken after Gallagher and other SEALs provided medical treatment to the captive who was wounded in an airstrike in 2017 and handed over by Iraqi forces.
The prosecutor, Lt. Brian John, said Gallagher was the platoon chief and should not have been the centrepiece of the photos in which nearly all the members posed with the body. John said Gallagher should have stopped the photos from being taken.
"For that reason, he no longer deserves to wear anchors," the prosecutor said.
John said the photos had the potential to be used as propaganda by ISIS and be harmful to U.S. forces overseas.
Tuesday's verdict that cleared Gallagher of the most serious charges was met with an outpouring of emotion.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who intervened earlier this year to have Gallagher moved from the brig to less restrictive confinement, tweeted congratulations to the SEAL and his family, adding "Glad I could help!"
Congratulations to Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher, his wonderful wife Andrea, and his entire family. You have been through much together. Glad I could help!—@realDonaldTrump
The outcome delivered a major blow to one of the U.S. navy's most high-profile war crimes cases and exposed a generational conflict within the ranks of the elite special operations forces.
Asked in a TV interview Wednesday on Fox & Friends what his message might be to future SEALs, Gallagher said he would tell them that "loyalty is a trait that seems to be lost," and that they are there to watch each other's backs.
"This small group of SEALs that decided to concoct this story in no way, shape or form represent the community that I love," Gallagher added, speaking of his accusers.
Gallagher also thanked Fox News "for being behind us from day one," and thanked Trump, along with Republican Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Ralph Norman of South Carolina.
Defence lawyers said Gallagher was framed by disgruntled junior platoon members who fabricated the allegations to oust their chief. They said the lead investigator built the probe around their stories instead of seeking the truth. They said there was no physical evidence to support the allegations because no corpse was ever recovered and examined by a pathologist.
But the prosecution said Gallagher was incriminated by his own text messages and photos, including one of him holding the dead militant up by the hair and clutching a knife in his other hand.
"Got him with my hunting knife," Gallagher wrote in a text with the photo.
The defence said it was just gallows humour and pointed out that almost all platoon members who testified against Gallagher also posed with the corpse.
The jury of five marines and two sailors, including a SEAL, was comprised mostly of seasoned combat veterans who served in Iraq. Several lost friends in war.