On July 2 — more than nine months after he was charged with murder and a string of other war crimes allegedly committed in Iraq in 2017 — Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward “Eddie” Gallagher strolled out of a Naval Base San Diego courtroom a free man, guilty only of appearing in an inappropriate photograph.
Despite the collapse of their case against him, four military attorneys netted Navy Achievement Medals eight days later for their roles in his prosecution, according to records released to Navy Times following a Freedom of Information Act request.
Presented at the Navy Region Southwest Legal Service Office in San Diego on July 10 by Capt. Gary E. Sharp — the chief of staff of Naval Legal Services Command in Washington — the decorations included NAMs for three lieutenants, George O. Hageman, Brian P. John and Scott I. McDonald, plus a female officer whose name and rank were redacted by the Navy.
Signed by Capt. Meg Larrea, the commanding officer for RLSO Southwest, McDonald’s NAM citation praised him for his “superior performance” after reviewing a (redacted) number of hours of video and reading a (redacted) number of pages of discovery to prep for a trial where he “brilliantly cross-examined defense witnesses” and “expertly delivered the government’s case in rebuttal.”
John’s NAM lauded him for his “superior performance" and “brilliant legal acumen” despite an “unforeseen personnel change” that forced him to fleet up to become a top prosecutor.
Those pair of awards raised eyebrows because although those Navy attorneys weren’t found culpable of wrongdoing, the prosecution team was sanctioned by Navy judge Capt. Aaron Rugh for violating the constitutional rights of Gallagher.
Part of the punishment included booting Cmdr. Christopher Czaplak, the lead prosecutor, for a warrantless surveillance program cooked up with Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents to track emails sent by defense attorneys and Navy Times.
Czaplak appears to have been the “unforeseen personnel change" and it remains unclear if the Navy will present him with an award.
The spying wasn’t the only accusation of prosecutorial and police misconduct dogging the case. They were accused of manipulating witness statements to NCIS agents; using immunity grants and a bogus “target letter” in a crude attempt to keep pro-Gallagher witnesses from testifying; illegally leaking documents to the media to taint the military jury pool; and then trying to cover it all up when they got caught.
And although John was praised in his NAM for preparing the government’s “most challenging witnesses,” he was the prosecutor questioning Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Corey Scott on June 24, when the SEAL dropped a bombshell John didn’t know was coming: Scott killed the prisoner of war in Iraq, not Gallagher.
Gallagher’s civilian defense attorney, Timothy Parlatore, told Navy Times he was concerned that Big Navy was handing out NAMs to the prosecution before the convening authority had even ruled on his client’s sentence. He called on the Pentagon to investigate Larrea’s decision.
“How does Capt. Larrea still have a job?" he asked. “Why hasn’t she been fired? They’re giving out awards to the members of a prosecution team that was sanctioned for unlawful actions and substandard conduct.”
Parlatore pointed out that Gallagher was found guilty of only one charge — posing with a dead detainee’s body — but he offered to plead guilty to that crime before the trial kicked off.
“They’re awards praising an outcome we offered before the trial,” Parlatore said. “I don’t understand it.”
Navy spokesman Cmdr. Jereal Dorsey confirmed "that an awards ceremony occurred where letters of commendation and Navy achievement medals were presented to individuals on the prosecution team who were deemed, by their immediate superiors, to have performed above their normal duties.”
He pointed to the three NAMs awarded during the same ceremony for legalman petty officers, plus letters of commendations for a gunner’s mate third class, legalman second class and ships serviceman seaman.
Critics told Navy Times that they weren’t objecting to any awards for enlisted sailors, who they agreed toiled for long hours on the case.
Instead, they’ve homed in on the NAMs for the two officers who became legal architects of a failed investigation already tainted by allegations of professional misconduct and words Capt. Sharp uttered at the ceremony.
On July 19, the defense team for Lt. Jacob X. “Jake” Portier, the officer in charge of Gallagher in Alpha Platoon, SEAL Team 7, filed a pair of motions seeking to dismiss the case against him.
He’s accused of failing to report war crimes that Gallagher’s military panel said never occurred — part of a cover up by Gallagher they believe he never attempted.
Lt. McDonald is one of Portier’s prosecutors. Despite the setbacks in the Gallagher case, and and the rest of the team have pushed on with Portier’s trial, which is slated to begin on Sept. 3.
“This gives a new meaning to ‘Everyone gets a trophy,’” said Jeremiah J. Sullivan III, Portier’s lead civilian defense attorney. “But I’m not surprised.”
Navy spokesman Dorsey said that the service won’t “comment on matters currently in litigation, to include motions,” but those in the Portier case take a whack at both the awards and Capt. Sharp’s role in presenting them.
Drafted by Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Stewart L. Sibert and Air Force Lt. Col. Nicholas W. McCue, the filing alleges that during the ceremony Sharp announced “no matter the result, we were right to prosecute” Gallagher and that “justice was done.”
To them, Sharp insinuated that Gallagher had “committed more serious misconduct than he was found guilty of."
And they say that’s a problem because the judge who heard the Gallagher case and continues to preside over Portier’s, Capt. Rugh, was in the room when Sharp said it.
At the end of the ceremony, he was even invited to shake the hands of those bestowed with awards “and congratulate them on their achievements," according to the motion.
The defense team’s filing doesn’t call on Rugh to step down before Portier’s trial, but it suggests they must question him under oath to make sure he can remain an impartial judge during the upcoming trial.
That dramatic hearing is expected to play out in a Naval Station San Diego courtroom on Friday.
Parlatore praises Rugh, but he questions why the prosecution is persisting in the Portier case.
“It’s shocking that after the embarrassment of the Navy during Eddie’s trial, the Navy intends to go forward with their false claims against Lt. Portier," said Parlatore.
“I predict Mr. Jay Sullivan is going to win an acquittal — if the case isn’t dismissed before trial.”
Prine came to Navy Times after stints at the San Diego Union-Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors and the Combat Infantryman Badge.