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."
Huertas said he plans now to continue with his military career and "to go home and kiss my wife."
Huertas was the first of three SEALS to face a court-martial for charges related to the abuse incident and the verdict was a major blow to the government's case. All three SEALs could have received only a disciplinary reprimand, but insisted on a military trial to clear their names and save their careers.
The trial stems from an attack on four Blackwater security contractors who were driving through the city of Fallujah west of Baghdad in early 2004. The images of the bodies hanging from the bridge drove home to many the rising power of the insurgency and helped spark a bloody U.S. invasion of the city to root out the insurgents later that year.
The Iraqi prisoner who was allegedly abused, Ahmed Hashim Abed, testified Wednesday on the opening day of the trial that he was beaten by U.S. troops while hooded and tied to a chair.
Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin DeMartino, who was assigned to process and transport the prisoner and is not a SEAL, testified he saw one SEAL punch the prisoner in the stomach and watched blood spurt from his mouth. Huertas and the third SEAL were in the narrow holding-room at the time of the incident, he added.
But defense attorneys tried to cast doubt on the beating claims, showing photographs of Abed after the alleged beating in which he had a visible cut inside his lip but no obvious signs of bruising or injuries anywhere else.
In her closing arguments, Huertas' civilian attorney Monica Lombardi pointed to inconsistencies between DeMartino's testimony and nearly every other Navy witness. She also reminded the jury of the terrorism charges against Abed, who is in Iraqi custody and has not yet been tried, saying he could not be trusted and may have inflicted wounds on himself as a way of casting blame on American troops.
"There was no abuse," Lombardi said. "This is classic terrorist training."
After the verdict, Lombardi said the jurors told her they had made their ruling because there were too many inconsistencies in the case and that they did not believe the prisoner.
Prosecutors refused to comment after the verdict, but in his closing argument Lt. Cmdr. Jason Grover said the SEALs were itching for payback for the killings of the Blackwater guards -- two of whom were former SEALs -- and that now the elite unit had "circled the wagons."
The court-martial of Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Keefe, of Yorktown, Virginia, who is also charged with dereliction of duty on allegations he failed to safeguard the prisoner, is scheduled to begin Friday also at Camp Victory.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew McCabe, of Perrysburg, Ohio, the SEAL charged with assaulting Abed, is scheduled to be court-martialed May 3 in Virginia, where the three men are based.