The war crimes trial of Navy SEAL Chief Edward Gallagher took a dramatic turn Thursday when a lead prosecution witness — another SEAL who has been granted immunity to testify — confessed that he was the actual killer of a 17-year-old ISIS prisoner.
Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Corey Scott stunned prosecutors as he described a previously unheard version of events, saying he asphyxiated the teenage Islamic fighter as an act of mercy.
Among other charges related to his 2017 military service in Iraq, Gallagher is accused of killing the insurgent.
Scott began his witness testimony as prosecutors had expected, KPBS reporter Steve Walsh told NPR. Like several other witnesses who have taken the stand earlier this week, Scott first said Gallagher plunged a knife into the neck of the wounded ISIS captive as they were providing him with medical care.
But Scott's account radically diverged from the familiar narrative during the defense's cross-examination when he revealed that "it was in fact he who killed [the combatant] by closing off an airway to a breathing tube for the wounded fighter and then he slowly watched him die," Walsh said.
Gallagher was jubilant following Scott's testimony, celebrating with his family outside the courtroom.
Prosecutors were visibly upset by the turn of events.
"They pointed out that [Scott] had spoken to prosecutors several times; they'd asked him to go step by step in this, and that he had never mentioned closing off the airway and he'd never said that in any of his testimony to naval investigators either," Walsh said.
The prosecution accused Scott of being untruthful and said he fabricated the new version of events because he is a friend of Gallagher's. When asked about his opinion of his former superior, Scott responded saying he likes him "and that he didn't want him to go away for the rest of his life," Walsh reported.
Gallagher's defense attorneys argued the alternative account had remained unknown because of sloppy work by naval investigators and the prosecution.
Scott is one of seven SEALs granted immunity in exchange for their testimony.
Should Scott's account be proved false, he can be prosecuted for perjury. "But he cannot be prosecuted for any statements that he makes, including apparently admitting to a killing," Walsh said.
The dramatic admission contradicted testimony by Dylan Dille, a former SEAL sniper, and Craig Miller, a special operations chief, who took the stand Wednesday. Both men, who also served with Gallagher, said he fatally stabbed the prisoner.
They also said Gallagher posed next to the body for a photo, which he subsequently texted to a fellow SEAL. The caption attached said, "Got him with my hunting knife."
The Associated Press reports that according to Dille, after stabbing the captive, Gallagher said, "This is just an ISIS dirtbag. Next time I'll do it where it will be out of sight, out of mind."
Gallagher is also charged with other offenses, including using his sniper rifle to shoot at unarmed civilians in Iraq — among them an elderly man he allegedly shot on Father's Day 2017, as well as a young girl.
Earlier this month, a military judge removed the lead prosecutor in the case after he admitted to surreptitiously embedding a digital tracking device in an email to defense attorneys. The software allowed prosecutors to monitor messages.
Gallagher is one of several special operators facing trial for violations of military law.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Stunning development is an overused cliche. But in this instance, the phrase fits. It happened today in the trial of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher. Chief Gallagher is accused of war crimes, including killing a teenage ISIS captive. Today a fellow SEAL testified that he, not Gallagher, is the one who killed the young man. And a warning - some of the details of that killing are disturbing to hear. Reporter Steve Walsh of member station KPBS has been covering the trial in San Diego, and he joins us. Welcome.
STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So you were in the courtroom today. Tell us what happened. It sounds like it was just a shocking, unexpected turn of events.
WALSH: No, it was completely unexpected. It was like something out of a Hollywood movie. You don't expect someone to declare that they're the real killer.
SHAPIRO: Especially when that person was a witness for the prosecution.
WALSH: Exactly. They're a witness for the prosecution. So Corey Scott was a medic. He was there on the scene in Iraq with Gallagher. He was beside him. And he testified, much like prosecutors expected him to testify, that Gallagher took a knife, plunged it into the neck of this wounded Iraqi fighter that they were providing medical care to. It was the sort of blow that was not designed for any sort of medical treatment but to injure the Iraqi fighter.
And it was all following the script. And then Corey Scott says in cross-examination by the defense that it was not Gallagher that killed him, that it was, in fact, Corey Scott who killed him by closing off a breathing tube for the wounded fighter. And then he slowly watched him die.
SHAPIRO: Now, Scott had presumably gone through depositions. How had this not come out earlier?
WALSH: Well, that's what the defense was saying. They're saying it was sloppiness on the part of naval investigators and prosecutors. Obviously, prosecutors were incredibly upset by this turn of events. And they pointed out on the stand that he had spoken to prosecutors several times - they had asked him to go step by step in this - and that he had never mentioned closing off the airway. And he'd never said that in any of his testimony to naval investigators either.
SHAPIRO: And he now has immunity, so he won't be prosecuted for this. Is that right?
WALSH: In the whole buildup to the case, one of the twists and turns - that there are seven SEALs that have been granted immunity to testify in this case. Corey Scott is one of those. He can still be prosecuted for perjury, but he cannot be prosecuted for any statements that he makes, including, apparently, admitting to a killing.
SHAPIRO: And what does this mean for Gallagher, the man on trial, who is accused of this killing?
WALSH: Well, as you can imagine, during the first break after this testimony, Gallagher was out in the hallway with his family and children. They were jubilant. They see this as a real turning point in this case - though he's not only charged with killing a teenage ISIS fighter, he's also charged with shooting at an elderly man and a young woman with his sniper rifle.
On the other side, prosecutors are still moving ahead with their case. They were calling other SEALs from Gallagher's platoon to testify in this case, as well. So they're moving ahead. They were already making the case on the stand that Corey Scott is not telling the truth. The reason why he's never said that he had killed anyone is because he's a friend of Gallagher's. He was asked, what do you think of Chief Gallagher? He said that he liked him, he had no problem with Chief Gallagher and that he didn't want him to go away for the rest of his life.
SHAPIRO: That is reporter Steve Walsh on a dramatic day in court in San Diego. Thank you very much.
WALSH: Thank you Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.