SAN DIEGO — A jury on Tuesday will begin the first full day of deliberations in the case of a decorated Navy SEAL charged with murdering a wounded war prisoner in Iraq.
Closing arguments wrapped up Monday at the court-martial of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, who has pleaded not guilty.
A military prosecutor asserted the proof of Gallagher's guilt is 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.
Both sides told jurors that witnesses had lied on the stand and it was their duty to push through the evidence to find the truth. The panel will weigh whether Gallagher, a 19-year veteran on his eighth deployment, went off the rails and fatally stabbed the war prisoner on May 3, 2017, as a kind of trophy kill, 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.
The jury is made up of five Marines and two sailors, including a SEAL, many of whom had been in heavy combat in Iraq.
The two-week trial included the testimonies of nearly a dozen SEALs, including Special Operator Corey Scott, a medic like Gallagher, who told the court that 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 the prisoner by plugging his breathing tube with his thumb as an act of mercy.
Seven SEALs said Gallagher unexpectedly stabbed the prisoner moments after he and the other medics treated the detainee. Two, including Scott, 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 in this case five jurors, to agree to a guilty verdict to convict. 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: "I've got a cool story for you when I get back. I've got my knife skills on." Another text stated: "Good story behind this. Got him with my hunting knife."
He then showed a photo of the dead prisoner with Gallagher holding up his head by the hair.
"The government's evidence in this case is Chief Gallagher's words, Chief Gallagher's pictures, Chief Gallagher's SEALs," Pietrzyk said.
The prosecutor said the witness who changed his story and claimed to have killed the prisoner himself was lying to protect Gallagher.
He acknowledged that the victim — a 17-year-old Islamic State fighter wounded in an airstrike — is not sympathetic.
"Before the air strike, he would have done anything in his power to kill an American," Pietrzyk said, but he said the care of war prisoners is what sets U.S. forces apart.
"We're not ISIS. When we capture someone and they're out of the fight, that's it. That's where the line is drawn," Pietrzyk said.
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 in an impromptu ceremony.
Defense lawyer Tim Parlatore began his closing argument the same way he started the trial. "This is case is not about murder, it's about mutiny," Parlatore said.
The attorney said there's no body, no forensics, and the SEALs who testified against Gallagher lied because they didn't like his demanding leadership. He called the pictures of Gallagher clutching the corpse's hair and his texts about his knife skills just the dark humor of a warrior.
Parlatore also contended that investigators never asked Scott about the cause of the death, which is why they were surprised by his testimony.
The defense showed video clips by an Iraq TV crew of the prisoner being interviewed after he was hit, then arriving at the SEAL compound and being handed over to the SEALs by the Iraqi troops. It also showed Gallagher pulling out his medical bag and treating the detainee.
Gallagher's attorneys said there are a number of things that could have caused the militant's death, including internal injuries from the blast.