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Trial Begins For Navy SEAL Accused Of War Crimes

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The trial of a Navy SEAL accused of war crimes got underway in San Diego today. SEAL Chief Eddie Gallagher is charged with a number of violations related to his military service in Iraq in 2017.

Steve Walsh with member station KPBS has been covering the case for months now. He joins me.

to the program.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: Steve, let's start with the charges. What is Chief Gallagher accused of doing?

WALSH: So in May 2017, Gallagher is accused of stabbing a wounded teenage ISIS fighter and posing with the body, then texting a photo to a fellow SEAL, saying, good story behind this - got him with my hunting knife. The next month, Gallagher is also charged with shooting an elderly man and then, later in July, a young girl. Now, seven SEALs have been granted immunity to testify in this trial.

CORNISH: What are Gallagher's lawyers saying?

WALSH: So his defense attorney, Tim Parlatore, has described the got-him-with-my-knife comment as a joke. The defense has also said at least some of the SEALs won't back the prosecution's case, including one SEAL listed as an eyewitness to the stabbing. But there are other factors as well. The incident happened on a deployment in Mosul in 2017. It took almost a year for the investigation to get underway, so there's no body, no crime scene, which makes this case very dependent on testimony.

CORNISH: This case has received so much pretrial publicity, and President Trump has weighed in. Can you talk about how that's affected things going in?

WALSH: So President Trump has hinted that he may pardon a number of people accused of war crimes. Gallagher's name has been mentioned on that list, though nothing has happened so far. The president did respond when several mainly Republican congressmen signed a letter asking Trump to remove Gallagher from the brig where he had been since September 11, 2018, after he was accused of trying to intimidate witnesses in the case.

There are also allegations of spying on the defense. Prosecutors placed email trackers in emails sent to defense lawyers and a reporter for Navy Times to try to find the source of thousands of pages of leaked documents in the case. Actually, at the beginning of the month, the judge actually removed the lead prosecutor in this case because of these spying allegations.

CORNISH: How long is this trial expected to take?

WALSH: So this trial is expected to go through July 5. All eyes seem to be on this - and the judge in his ruling, Judge Aaron Rugh, said the decision to track the defense has placed an intolerable strain on the public's perception of the military justice system. Though they removed that lead prosecutor, the secondary prosecutor does remain in place here. So the trial was only delayed a little over a week after the judge went ahead and removed the prosecutor in the case.

But the case expected to get into high gear starting this week. Opening arguments are supposed to happen maybe tomorrow or maybe Wednesday. And as part of the decision to sort of mitigate the number of the war crimes in this case, the spying - allegations of spying by the defense, the judge has taken life in prison off the table.

CORNISH: That's Steve Walsh of member station KPBS in San Diego. Thank you for your reporting.

WALSH: Thank you, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAZERBEAK'S "WINGING IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.