A decorated US Navy SEAL has been found not guilty of murdering a captive teenage militant in Iraq, the most serious of the charges brought against him during a two-week war crimes trial in San Diego.
Edward Gallagher, 40, was likewise acquitted of two counts of attempted murder against Iraqi civilians, but was convicted of posing for a photograph beside the corpse of the captive Islamic State group fighter.
The maximum sentence he could face is four months imprisonment, meaning he is set to walk free following the verdict on account of the nine months he has already served in pre-trial confinement.
The jury found Mr Gallagher “not guilty of murder, not guilty of stabbing, not guilty of shooting, not guilty of all those things, they found him guilty of taking a photograph,” Timothy Parlatore, one of Mr Gallagher’s attorney’s, told journalists outside the courthouse.
The prosecution’s case was dealt a major blow when a witness said that it was he, not Mr Gallagher, who had put an end to the captive IS militant’s life.
He testified that he covered the victim’s breathing tube with his thumb and then watched him die.
Mr Scott said he did so to spare the boy, who prosecutors say was about 15 years old, from suffering or being tortured by Iraqi forces.
Mr Scott, who was given immunity from prosecution, acknowledged during questioning that he made the revelation to spare Mr Gallagher, who is married and has children, from going to prison.
Prosecutors argued Mr Scott’s version of events was a fabrication and that he was lying to protect Mr Gallagher.
Mr Gallagher’s case proved divisive in the US, where he is viewed as a war hero by some.
His cause was championed by around 40 Republican members of Congress, as well as the right-wing Fox News channel.
US President Donald Trump in May expressed concern over the prosecution of US soldiers accused of war crimes, with Mr Gallagher reportedly among those he was considering granting pardons.
The charges against Mr Gallagher stemmed from allegations by men under his own command in the US Navy’s premier special operations forces.
They were among American troops deployed to Mosul, in northern Iraq, alongside Iraqi forces battling IS for control of the country’s second city.
According to court documents, some members of the “Alpha” platoon were so horrified by Mr Gallagher’s behaviour that they tampered with his sniper rifle and fired warning shots to scare civilians away before he had time to open fire on them.
They told investigators that Mr Gallagher, who began his career as a medic, would brag about the number of people he had killed.
One platoon mate said he saw Mr Gallagher fatally stab the teenage IS militant. Mr Gallagher then allegedly posed with the boy’s body for photographs and texted the pictures to fellow SEAL
“Good story behind this one,” one text message read, according to prosecutors. “Got him with my hunting knife.”
When some of the other SEALs expressed reservations over the killing, prosecutors said Mr Gallagher’s response was: “I thought everyone would be cool with it. Next time it happens, I’ll do it somewhere where you can’t see.”