Navy SEAL charged with war crimes freed from base confinement in San Diego
By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – A Navy SEAL platoon leader court-martialed on war crimes charges was released by a military judge from base confinement in San Diego on Thursday, 11 days before he is due to stand trial in a case that has attracted the attention of President Donald Trump.
The Navy captain presiding over the case ordered Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher freed from custody at the end of a five-hour pre-trial hearing on several defense motions stemming from his lawyers’ accusations of prosecutorial misconduct.
Gallagher’s team contends that Navy prosecutors and their investigators illegally snooped on the defense and reporters in a transgression that merits dismissal of the charges or disqualification of the lead prosecutor from the case.
The judge, Captain Aaron Rugh, adjourned the hearing for the day without ruling on those requests. Instead, to the apparent surprise of everyone present, the judge said he was ordering Gallagher’s release as a “remedy for interference from the prosecution.”
Gallagher, dressed in his Navy summer whites uniform, hugged his wife in tears as spectators gasped. The proceedings at Naval Base San Diego were set to resume on Friday.
Gallagher, 39, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges, had been restricted to base at the Naval Medical Center San Diego since late March.
He was transferred there from a military brig at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California at the direction of U.S. President Trump, who ordered less-restrictive confinement while he awaited trial “in honor of his past service to our country.”
Trump has said he is considering pardons for a number of service members accused of war crimes, and media reports have cited U.S. officials as saying Gallagher’s is one of the cases under review. (https://reut.rs/2QAJ9nx)
One of Gallagher’s civilian defense attorneys, Marc Mukasey, also serves as a personal lawyer for Trump.
Jury selection is set to begin June 10 in the court-martial accusing Gallagher of fatally stabbing a helpless, wounded Islamic State fighter in his custody and of shooting two unarmed civilians, a schoolgirl and an elderly man.
If convicted of all charges, including murder, attempted murder and obstructing justice, he could face life in prison.
Gallagher says he was wrongly accused and that fellow SEAL team members testifying against him, several under grants of immunity, are disgruntled subordinates who fabricated allegations to force him from command.
His defense team has argued the case should be dismissed altogether on grounds of alleged misconduct by the Navy prosecutor and agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).
The defense specifically has accused Navy lawyers of conducting illegal surveillance of defense attorneys and news media using electronic tracking software secretly embedded in emails sent to the defense.
In court, prosecutors have said the email “auditing tools” they used were designed merely to detect the flow of emails without revealing their content, and were aimed at pinpointing the source of leaks from case files sealed by the judge.
The judge has said he did not ask for or order any such surveillance. On Thursday, the defense withdrew its request for the judge’s recusal.
(Reporting by Marty Graham in San Diego; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Clarence Fernandez)
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