One SEAL cleared

One down, three to go:

A U.S. military jury cleared a Navy SEAL Thursday of failing to prevent the beating of an Iraqi prisoner suspected of masterminding a 2004 attack that killed four American security contractors.

The contractors’ burned bodies were dragged through the streets and two were hanged from a bridge over the Euphrates river in the former insurgent hotbed of Fallujah, in what became a turning point in the Iraq war.

The trial of three SEALs, the Navy’s elite special forces unit, in the abuse case has outraged many Americans who see it as coddling terrorists.

A six-man jury found Petty Officer 1st Class Julio Huertas, 29, of Blue Island, Illinois, not guilty of charges of dereliction of duty and attempting to influence the testimony of another service member. The jury spent two hours deliberating the verdict.

“It’s a big weight off my shoulders,” a smiling and composed Huertas said as he left the courthouse at the U.S. military’s Camp Victory on Baghdad’s western outskirts.

“Compared to all the physical activity we go through, this has been mentally more challenging.”

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  • SGT Dave

    BW and all,
    First, congratulations on the Rush and Instalanche, you deserve the attention.
    On to this subject – this is a big win and a big poke in the eye to the policy makers driving the prosecution.  Two hours is a minimum time for a military jury.  Just reading the instructions, filling out the paperwork, and taking a vote will eat up an hour or more, depending on how fast the members read and can scribble.  The fact that there were only two charges is another indicator – military trials normally have a whole pile of charges stacked up.  From my personal experience, the only trials that happen are “sure things” for one side or the other.  This one was a “sure thing” on the defense, pushed forward under political pressure from the outside against the military.  No military prosecutor wants to go forward with a leading charge of “dereliction of duty”.  This is an add-on charge, meant to be piled on to either press for a deal or introduce aggravating circumstances to a more serious charge.  Yes, military courts are strange and often arcane in their actions, but codified law (as opposed to common law) has its quirks.  The prosecutor likely wanted to drop charges, but was unable to do so because of media and command attention.  Look for one of three things to happen in the other cases:  one – prosecution quietly drops charges, two – defense moves to vacate charges based on this ruling and the prosecution agrees, or three – the next two trials take about the same two hours or less to render verdict.  My initial take after the three requested court-martial in defiance of the administrative punishment was that the prosecution was doomed.  This report confirms it; it also is a likely death-knell for the career of the officer who initially wrote the Captain’s Mast administrative action.  He’s been repudiated by the court and shown that his judgement is flawed.  If the deliberation had been four to twelve hours, he’d have a chance.  Few military deliberations take more than a day, and then only when faced with complex legal issues or numerous charges. 
    I will re-iterate, and pardon my soap-box, but military trials of military personnel are 90%+ slam-dunk cases.  Codified law takes out a lot of the grey area; the juror pool (usually lieutenant-colonels or higher and master sergeants or higher) is composed of professionals from the “peer” group of military personnel and is generally in the 30-55 years of age range – they are people who know and are unimpressed with BS.  The other option is to take a trial by judge, which is good for certain cases – and often good for a losing case, since most of the military judges I know are prone to moderation.  Hanging judges aren’t good for morale; you have to know you’ll get a fair shake. 
    Oh, and a final note on the jury.  They all have work and lives outside the jury room.  They treat this as one more duty to be performed – professionally, with due deliberation and all seemly speed.  There is no “let’s re-argue the case”.  They have their notes, they have a common background, and they have a common problem solving framework.

    All in all, a great day for the Navy, for the U.S. military, and for this SEAL in particular.

    SSG Dave
    “We are accountable and responsible.  We will answer your charges and investigate as needed.  We will not, however, bend justice to the political breeze that blows.”

  • suek

    >>This report confirms it; it also is a likely death-knell for the career of the officer who initially wrote the Captain’s Mast administrative action.>>
    We can hope.

  • SGT Dave

    The key for the officer is not that he sought action against the SEALs; the largest issue that will come to the fore is his judgement and evaluation skills regarding this action.  Very, very few servicemen will challenge an administrative punishment – it is a serious situation and if you misjudge, you have a federal conviction on your record.  However, the commander who took the action should have known he was treading in on a dangerous path – and further, should have taken precautions to move back from the brink when the SEALs made it clear they intended to fight. 
    In almost 20 years, I’ve only seen a handful of court-martial requests in refusal of administrative punishment.  In some cases, the prosecutor sits down and talks the accused into taking the deal – usually showing the accused what the likely outcome would be.  In other cases, the senior sergeant (master chief petty officer or gunny) feels out the accused and then advises the commander to drop or modify the punishment.  Good commanders know BEFORE they file the papers that the soldier is going to sign on the line.  The fact that these men fought it all the way to the courtroom means there was a breakdown in communication and leadership.  Either the commander was pressured by higher not to withdraw the charges (in which case his men will never trust him again, destroying his leadership potential) or he didn’t listen to his senior non-commissioned advisor (in which case the sergeants’ network will ensure that word gets around – resulting in the same destruction of leadership potential).  Either way, the troops will no longer trust him – which means they won’t work hard for him.  They’ll perform capably – but not exceptionally.  He will get “average” results – and “average” doesn’t get you that next promotion.  Average gets your file put in the “let’s look at him next year” pile.  Three of those and you are out.  Add in one officer on the board who uses his senior non-com as a sounding board, and you get “nah, he just isn’t a leader”. 
    One mistake ends military careers.  Letting this get to court martial – no matter how or who pressed you to take it there – ended that career.  Even good officers (see the intelligence and navy personnel who reported Abu Ghraib) tangenitally involved in a court-martial situation get plowed under.  I believe (though I may be wrong) that every command officer in that unit is no longer in service, even the company commanders and platoon leaders that were not in the chain of command (or even in the vicinity) of the offenders. 

    Just a peek at the military zero-tolerance policies (and unwritten policies)

    SSG Dave
    “You can be absolutely innocent and still be convicted in the court of public opinion.  It doesn’t matter what you did or didn’t do; it matters what they believe and what you can convince them you did.”

  • Ymarsakar

    What Dave remarked on may seem harsh, but it is unavoidable in any military force that wishes to keep discipline. It is far better for careers to end, than for lives and battles and wars to be lost.

    So long as they receive honorable discharges, their economic prospects are still very good. Far better than convicted felons. Their military career is gone, but their life is still theirs to live. It may suck, but not as much as dying would suck.
    Alan West is probably, perhaps, the most notable example.