SAN DIEGO — A decorated Navy SEAL stabbed to death a wounded and captive teenage Islamic State fighter in Iraq and then bragged about it, a military prosecutor told jurors Tuesday during opening statements in a politically charged court-martial.
Lt. Brian John projected a photo of the dead prisoner in the military courtroom, along with a text message that Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward “Eddie” Gallagher sent to friends.
"Good story behind this," Gallagher wrote. "Got him with my hunting knife."
The defense told the jury that Gallagher treated the militant’s wounds and didn’t kill him. Attorney Tim Parlatore, who has claimed the text was an attempt at dark humor, said there’s no body, autopsy or any forensic evidence to show a killing happened.
He says the case was built on lies by junior SEALs who hated Gallagher.
"This case is not about murder," Parlatore said. "It's about mutiny. He didn't murder or attempt to murder anyone."
The trial is exposing fractures in the secrecy that typically shrouds the elite special forces as fellow troops testify against Gallagher, who had served eight tours of duty and earned two Bronze Stars for valor.
Gallagher, whose case has drawn President Donald Trump’s attention, faces seven counts that include premeditated murder and attempted murder. He has pleaded not guilty to charges that carry a potential life sentence.
They include allegations he shot two civilians — an elderly man and a school-age girl — in separate incidents from sniper perches in Iraq in 2017.
Fellow SEALs will testify that they fired warning shots to protect civilians, John said.
Those witnesses were not in the same building as Gallagher and didn't see the shootings he's accused of carrying out, Parlatore said, adding that one of the shootings was reportedly done by an Islamic State member.
The trial is expected to last two to three weeks.
The jury — it’s called a “panel” in the military — is composed of five enlisted men, including a Navy SEAL and four Marines, plus a Navy commander and a Marine chief warrant officer.
Most of the jurors have served in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gallagher's defense has been championed by his family and some congressional Republicans who have claimed that he's a hero getting railroaded. Trump intervened to get Gallagher removed from the brig as he awaited trial and is said to be considering a pardon for him.
Jury selection begins in the war crimes case on Monday, with a trial expected to kick off two days later.
The case has been plagued by news leaks of court documents and a subsequent investigation to find the source of those leaks.
The lead prosecutor was removed from the case earlier this month for tracking the defense team’s emails as part of the leak investigation.
Defense lawyers unsuccessfully sought to have a Navy judge dismiss the case because they say investigators and prosecutors withheld evidence that could help Gallagher and violated his rights to a fair trial by embedding the tracking software in emails sent to them.
Navy Capt. Aaron Rugh refused to dismiss the case, but he took steps to ensure Gallagher gets a fair trial and fix violations of his constitutional right against illegal searches and the right to counsel.
Rugh released Gallagher from custody, removed the lead prosecutor and reduced the maximum penalty he faces if convicted, to life imprisonment with parole instead of no chance of parole.
Melley reported from Los Angeles.