SAN DIEGO (CNS) - A Navy SEAL acquitted in San Diego of murder and other charges stemming from various alleged war crimes was demoted in rank Wednesday in connection with his conviction for posing for a photograph with the corpse of an ISIS fighter.
Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, who was accused of fatally stabbing a wounded teenage ISIS fighter and shooting Iraqi civilians, was acquitted Tuesday of six of the seven charges he had faced. After eight hours of deliberation at the Naval Base in San Diego, a jury of five Marines and two Navy men found the highly decorated veteran not guilty of murder, attempted murder, willful discharge of a firearm and obstruction of justice and convicted him solely of posing with the teen's body in a photograph.
While the verdict means Gallagher will walk away a free man, the charge affected Gallagher's rank, salary and pension with his demotion to E-6 -- or Petty Officer First Class. The charge on which he was convicted also carries a maximum sentence of four months behind bars, which he has already served.
Gallagher, 40, could have faced up to life in prison if convicted of murdering the teen in May 2017, as well as shooting a male and female civilian whose bodies were never recovered and, just over a month later, opening fire on a crowd of civilians from a sniper's nest in Mosul, Iraq.
Prosecutor Jeff Pietrzyk said in his closing argument that despite a lack of physical evidence, text messages and pictures Gallagher took with the teen's body were direct evidence of his guilt.
"Good story behind this one. Got him with my hunting knife," read one of the text messages Gallagher allegedly sent to a colleague. "I got a cool story for you when I get back. I got my knife skills on."
Prosecutors alleged that once Gallagher received word of the prisoner, who was injured in an air strike, he said, "No one touch him. He's mine."
The prosecution alleged that as Gallagher and others tended to the teen, he pulled out a hunting knife and stabbed the boy multiple times.
Gallagher's defense team claimed the allegations were lies coming from a group of disgruntled subordinates who felt their platoon commander was too tough on them.
His attorney, Timothy Parlatore, told the jury that the SEALs who reported Gallagher were lying, and contended the government was relying entirely on their word in the face of a complete absence of physical evidence that any of the charged events ever occurred.
"No body, no forensics, no science, no evidence, no case," Parlatore said during his closing argument.
The attorney emphasized that in addition to no bodies being recovered, no blood was ever seen on Gallagher or the hunting knife, despite photographs taken shortly after the stabbing allegedly happened. Without a body, a forensic expert testifying as an expert witness was unable to determine the teen's cause of death based solely on video footage of the boy's injuries.
In surprise testimony during the trial, First Class Petty Officer Corey Scott testified that he suffocated the wounded ISIS fighter after Gallagher stabbed the teen in the neck. Scott said he held down the boy's breathing tube because he did not want him to suffer or be tortured by Iraqis.
But Navy prosecutors said Gallagher's text messages, particularly the wording of "Got him with my hunting knife," was evidence of his admission to the murder.
"The government's evidence in this case comes from Chief Gallagher's words, Chief Gallagher's actions and Chief Gallagher's SEALs," Pietrzyk said.
Parlatore countered that several SEALs posed with the ISIS fighter's body and likened the text messages to "dark humor" that in no way proved Gallagher killed the teen.
Prosecutors alleged that Gallagher threatened fellow SEALs over the allegations and posted their names in private Navy social media groups in order to out them as traitors and sabotage their chances at career advancement.
But Gallagher's attorneys argued he was simply trying to clear his name amid the volatile claims made against him, and that divulging the names of the men spreading malicious rumors was a means of warning fellow SEALs who might serve with those men in the future.
The trial was dogged by allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, with the trial judge finding that Navy prosecutors used tracking software to spy on the defense team's email accounts.
The judge, Capt. Aaron Rugh, removed Cmdr. Chris Czaplak from the case just before the trial was set to begin, ruling the prosecution sent emails to the defense and a Navy Times reporter that were embedded with code that would track the recipients' email activity.
The judge also ordered that Gallagher be released from custody due to violations of his Fourth and Sixth Amendment rights and reduced the maximum possible sentence of life without parole to life with the possibility of parole.
Gallagher received public support from President Donald Trump, who commented in a social media post earlier this year that the 19-year Navy veteran should be moved to less restrictive confinement. Trump also hinted at pardoning him if he was convicted.
On Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted, "Congratulations to Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, his wonderful wife Andrea, and his entire family. You have been through much together. Glad I could help!"
Embattled Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, also advocated pardoning Gallagher and stated publicly that he also posed with an enemy combatant's corpse during his time in the Marines.
Hunter, who is facing federal charges of misusing campaign funds, celebrated the acquittals and reproached the Navy in a statement released Tuesday afternoon.
"The Gallagher case has been shameful from the start," according to Hunter, who said the trial was "nothing short of a disgrace for the entire military system."
"On very circumstantial and limited physical evidence, the Navy felt it appropriate to charge Chief Gallagher with the murder of an ISIS terrorist, accomplishing nothing but destroying the military career of a decorated Navy SEAL and giving every warfighter cause for concern that the nation they serve does not have their back," he said.