By Steve Centanni, Pat Summers and Gretchen Gailey
NORFOLK – It only took a 7-member jury one hour and 40 minutes Thursday afternoon to find Navy SEAL Matthew McCabe not guilty on all counts. McCabe had been charged with assault for allegedly roughing up Ahmed Hashim Abed, the accused terrorist who allegedly masterminded the grisly killings six years ago of four American contractors in Iraq.
In closing arguments, prosecution attorney Lt. Jason Grover said, “This is a simple case, but not an easy one. Nobody wants to believe a decorated Navy SEAL would assault a detainee.” Grover also argued that a key prosecution witness, Petty Officer Kevin Demartino, had no reason to lie when he testified that he saw McCabe punch the prisoner in the stomach.
“What’s Dimartino’s motive to blame his shipmates?” asked Grover. “If he was looking for an explanation for something that happened on his watch, he had an easy one right in front of him,” the prosecutor argued. “He could just say the terrorist did it to himself.”
Which is exactly what the defense argued in this case. Defense attorney Haytham Faraj, in his closing argument, insists McCabe acted honorably. Faraj asked the jury, “Why didn’t McCabe just shoot Abed in the first place?”
“These SEALs,” he continues, referring to McCabe and two other SEALs charged in the case, “had motives, they had opportunities, but they’re professionals.” Faraj insists, “Everyone has to be lying for the government’s case to be believed.”
The jury of six men and one woman received the case at 4:15 Thursday afternoon.
This follows four days of pre-trial motions, jury selection and testimony before a Judge Advocate General, Captain Moira Modelewski, at the Naval Station Norfolk, in Norfolk, Virginia.
Another of the Navy SEALs charged in connection with the Abed case, Petty Officer First Class Julio Huertas, took the stand for the defense Thursday morning.
He said that he and the other two Navy SEALs, McCabe and Jonathan Keefe, did visit the detention facility where Abed was being held on the night of the alleged incident.
But, he insists, there was no assault. He says they only dropped by to see if Dimartino, who was in charge of the holding facility, needed anything. Huertas and Keefe were found not guilty last month in separate trials in Baghdad.
The defense called an oral surgeon Thursday who testified by phone from Baghdad. He said Abed might have bitten an ulcer on his lip, causing it to bleed. Defense attorneys said this validated their position that no assault occurred and that Al Qaeda detainees are trained to injure themselves then claim abuse.
Earlier, after the prosecution and defense both rested their cases, prosecutors Thursday announced they needed time to present a rebuttal. They were basically trying to rehabilitate their key witness, Demartino, whose character and credibility had been questioned by a string of defense witnesses Wednesday, many of them Navy SEALs. One of Demartino’s former superior officers, testifying as a rebuttal witness, called Demartino “one of my top sailors—I can depend on him for anything.”
Defense witnesses on Wednesday had painted a picture of Demartino as unstable, unreliable and, after the incident with Abed, “distraught.” According to testimony, Demartino was worried his career would be ruined because a prisoner claimed abuse on his watch, and that he would no longer have a chance for his dream job with the California Highway Patrol. This, the defense claimed, gave Demartino a motive to lie. Demartino did not immediately report the alleged assault to his superiors and admits to dereliction of duty. The defense suggested that since Demartino initially said nothing about an assault, he’s an unreliable witness.
The defense also continued throughout the trial to cast doubt on the English translation of Abed’s audio-taped testimony, claiming it was unreliable, which creates an element of doubt. As in civilian courts, a defendant—in this case McCabe–must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Four of the seven jurors would have had to vote to convict for McCabe to have been found guilty.
Thursday afternoon, prosecutors suffered an apparent setback when a witness they called supported the defense position on disputed statements submitted in writing by two Navy SEALs in Iraq shortly after the alleged assault. The prosecution claimed the two SEALs, Jonathan Keefe and Matthew McCabe, colluded to get their stories straight, because their statements appeared to be identical. But this witness acknowledged the statements of two SEALs on the same mission often coincide.
Abed was captured in a surprise raid by the Navy SEALs in Fallujah, Iraq, in September of last year. The murders he’s accused of masterminding were a turning point in the Iraq war, galvanizing the U.S. military to launch a major offensive against the insurgents in Fallujah. The bodies of the four Americans were burned and dragged through the streets, and two of them were hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River.
Ever since charges were brought against the Navy SEALs last year, there has been a huge outpouring of popular support for the defendants. Rallies were held at which the men were described as heroes rather than criminals. Websites helped raise defense funds and at least 20 members of Congress called for the charges against them to be dropped. The military, however, insists it has a zero tolerance for detainee abuse and that all members of the services are duty-bound to follow the law.