A federal judge on Tuesday overturned the desertion conviction of a U.S. Army soldier who pleaded guilty after he left his post and endured torture and imprisonment under Taliban captors.
Then-Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl faced charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy after an incident in 2009 when the soldier, then 23, walked away from his assigned post in Afghanistan and plead guilty in 2017, according to The New York Times. The court’s motion to vacate all court-martial proceedings since then came after it was discovered an Army colonel presiding over the military court failed to disclose he had applied for a job in former President Donald Trump’s justice department, creating a potential conflict of interest and adding another controversy to the highly politicized case.
Trump publicly called Bergdahl a “traitor” and suggested he could be executed, according to the NYT.
Judge Reggie Walton rejected the defense’s argument that the entire case should be voided because of the former president’s comments, which were seen by many as politicizing the case, according to the opinion. Jeffery Nance, the Army colonel, previously made a similar argument in the case and presented his opinion as a writing sample in his application for the Justice Department position under the Trump administration.
Walton said circumstances created the appearance of bias, presenting “a unique situation where the military judge might be inclined to appeal to the president’s expressed interest in the plaintiff’s conviction and punishment when applying,” according to the order.
Bergdahl could see a second trial before a new judge, according to the NYT. But the developments represent an “important victory” for Bergdahl, Eugene Fidell told the NYT.
Nance had dishonorably discharged Bergdahl, reduced his rank to private and required him to forfeit $10,000 in pay but did not grant the 14-year prison sentence prosecutors sought after noting his sufferings from five years in captivity under the Taliban.
Berghdal said he walked away from his post without authorization because he wanted to report perceived leadership failures to another military outpost some distance away, according to the NYT. Militants captured him hours into the hike and subjected him to confinement and beatings.
Other soldiers embarked on dangerous and fruitless searches for the missing sergeant.
Former president Barack Obama exchanged Bergdahl in a prisoner swap involving five high-ranking Taliban officials the U.S. had held in Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Seeking to celebrate Bergdahl’s release, Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice said he had served with “honor and distinction.”
Obama’s victory quickly soured as soldiers and politicians accused Bergdahl of turning on the U.S. and putting lives at risk. The administration also did not notify Congress 30 days in advance before transferring Guantanamo detainees as required by statute, and many Republicans said the imbalance in the prisoner swap only added to the injustice of Bergdahl’s conduct.
It won't get the attention it deserves, but a Congressional investigation found the Obama admin misled Congress, sidestepped legal reqs & blocked career DOD officials' involvement during the Taliban 5-Berghdal prisoner exchange. 😡https://t.co/L0vNzFP5Ov
— Jim Banks (@RepJimBanks) April 8, 2020
Walton rejected the plaintiff’s argument that Trump’s comments amounted to unlawful command influence over the outcome of the trial, according to the order. However, he warned that public officials who express a desired verdict over someone merely accused of a crime undermines credibility.
“The system will become subject to widespread condemnation by the public it serves,” Walton wrote.
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