A Navy SEAL was found not guilty of murder and all other counts, except for posing with a dead war prisoner in Iraq, in a dramatic, closely watched military trial in San Diego.
The verdict came after a military jury in San Diego reviewed the partial testimony of a prosecution witness Tuesday before resuming deliberations in the murder case of a decorated Navy SEAL accused of fatally stabbing a wounded war prisoner in Iraq and shooting civilians in separate incidents in 2017.
Jurors took notes as they listened to a recording of Lt. Thomas MacNeil, the first of nearly a dozen SEALs who testified at the court-martial of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher at Naval Base San Diego.
MacNeil was one of seven SEALs who had testified that Gallagher stabbed the teen captive in his care.
The 40 minutes of testimony reviewed by the jury included only the prosecutor’s questioning of MacNeil and none of the cross-examination by the defense.
It covered the platoon’s morning route to assist Iraqi forces outside Mosul, his description of Gallagher’s knife, and how he saw the captive arrive conscious with a dribble of blood on his leg to the SEAL compound.
MacNeil then said he found the captive dead after he returned to the place where Gallagher was treating him about 15 minutes later.
A former roommate of Gallagher, MacNeil testified that he and Gallagher and other SEALs were driving to help Iraqi forces near the front lines on May 3, 2017, when chatter came over the platoon radio transmission that an air strike in support of Iraqi forces had wounded someone. Once it became clear that the person was an Islamic State fighter, MacNeil testified: “I heard Chief Gallagher announce, ‘Lay off, he’s mine.’”
MacNeil said back at the compound that he saw Gallagher treat the wounded captive and that when Gallagher applied pressure to his wounded leg, the captive shot up and yelled in pain.
MacNeil said he went to attend to other duties and returned later to find the prisoner dead.
The jurors also listened to MacNeil’s testimony about being able to recognize a custom knife that Gallagher would wear slipped into his belt loops and would hang on the wall of their room at night.
During that recording, one juror, a SEAL, tapped another juror, a Navy commander, on the shoulder when MacNeil said he would recognize the knife if he saw it in a photograph.
During closing arguments Monday, both sides said witnesses had lied.
The jury had to weigh whether Gallagher, a 19-year veteran on his eighth deployment, fatally stabbed the war prisoner or was the victim of allegations fabricated after the platoon returned to San Diego to stop him from getting a Silver Star and being promoted.
Gallagher pleaded not guilty to seven charges, including premediated murder for the prisoner’s death, attempted murder for shooting civilians and a violation for posing with the militant’s body after he died.
A military prosecutor asserted the proof of Gallagher’s guilt was his own words, his own photos and the testimony of his fellow troops, while defense lawyers called the case a “mutiny” by entitled, junior SEALs trying to oust a demanding chief.
The jury was made up of five Marines and two sailors, including the SEAL, many of whom have been in combat in Iraq.
During the two-week trial, Special Operator Corey Scott, a medic like Gallagher, said he saw the chief stab the Islamic State militant in the neck but stunned the court when he said he was the one who ultimately killed him by plugging his breathing tube with his thumb as an act of mercy.
Scott was one of two SEALs who testified they saw Gallagher plunge his knife into the prisoner’s neck.
Under the military justice system, the prosecution needs two-thirds of the jury, or five members, to agree to a guilty verdict. Jurors can also convict him of lesser charges or acquit him.
Navy Cmdr. Jeff Pietrzyk said in closing arguments that text messages by Gallagher show he is guilty.
One message said: “Good story behind this. Got him with my hunting knife.”
During the trial, it was revealed that nearly all the platoon members readily posed for photos with the dead prisoner and watched as Gallagher read his reenlistment oath near the body.