By Kate Wiltrout The Virginian-Pilot NORFOLK
Five sailors could offer testimony contradicting the government’s main witness in the controversial prosecution of three Navy SEALs accused of mistreating a suspected Iraqi terrorist. But whether they’ll take the stand is in question after the government denied their requests for immunity on Friday.
Attorney Charles Gittins represents the five potential witnesses, including two officers who led the SEAL detachment that captured Ahmed Hashim Abed in Fallujah in September. Abed is the alleged mastermind of the murders of four Blackwater contractors in Fallujah in 2004.
Gittins said his clients’ testimony would be inconsistent with some or all of the statements made by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin Demartino, the Navy master-at-arms who claimed to have seen a SEAL hit Abed while he was being held in a U.S. detainee facility after his capture.
“If your intent is to have a fair trial, they are witnesses you’d want to hear from,” Gittins said.
Monica Lombardi, who is defending one of the accused SEALs, said the government’s decision not to grant immunity to key defense witnesses raises questions about the “fundamental fairness” of the process. “They contradict a lot of what the government is alleging as having happened,” Lombardi said. “Where is the government going with this case, and how are they going to ensure the accused’s right to a fair trial?”
The prosecutions of Matthew McCabe, Jonathan Keefe and Julio Huertas, all assigned to SEAL Team 10 in Virginia Beach, have drawn widespread criticism, political heat and demonstrations outside the Norfolk base.
The cases are being handled locally, but the decision to press charges was made by Maj. Gen. C.T. Cleveland, head of Special Operations Command Central. Cleveland did so after the SEALs declined administrative punishment, which could have compromised their careers in special warfare.
McCabe, a petty officer second class, is charged with assault, making a false statement and dereliction of duty. Lombardi’s client, Petty Officer 1st Class Huertas, is charged with impeding an investigation, making a false statement and dereliction of duty, while Petty Officer 2nd Class Keefe faces charges of dereliction of duty and making a false statement.
Lombardi said she will consider asking the military judge overseeing Huertas’ case to “abate” the proceeding, a ruling that could force the government to either grant immunity or drop the charges.
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for March 8 in Norfolk.
Eugene Fidell, a lawyer and president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said abatements are rare. “Although it can be done, it’s a tall order,” Fidell said.
My only question/concern is why defense witnesses, who would contradict prosecution witnesses statements, would need immunity. Are they afraid of retribution for telling the truth? If so, why?