Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, right, walks with his wife, Andrea Gallagher as they arrive to military court on Naval Base San Diego in July 2019. / Photo by Steve Walsh, KPBS

Objectively speaking, Eddie Gallagher’s trial was bonkers.

The Navy SEAL chief was accused of stabbing a teenage prisoner to death in 2017 and then intimidating witnesses. Every few days, there seemed a new twist. In June, for instance, the lead military prosecutor was cast out for spying on Gallagher’s defense team and a reporter. Then the star witness, a medic who’d been granted immunity, changed his story on the stand. It was he, and not Gallagher, who had suffocated and killed the boy, he said.

In the end, a jury acquitted Gallagher on all but one charge: taking pictures alongside a dead combatant.

The violent events occurred overseas, and the politics of it played out largely in D.C. But the San Diego case shed light on SEAL culture and the difficulty that soldiers face when attempting to report one another for war crimes.

That conversation got the attention of Rep. Duncan Hunter. The congressman tried to downplay the seriousness of the charges by admitting that he, too, had posed with a dead combatant and probably killed “hundreds of civilians,” including children, on the battlefield.

At Hunter’s insistence, President Donald Trump campaigned on behalf of Gallagher, echoing statements made by the SEALs’ family and legal team. One senior Navy official would later complain to the Union-Tribune that Trump was making decisions based on “bad” information from people on Fox News.

After the trial, Navy officials insisted that Gallagher would be held accountable. Instead, Trump restored Gallagher’s rank and pay, overruling the typical chain of command and protecting him from any further punishments. The president’s interventions in the case and the Pentagon hierarchy culminated last month in the firing of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer.

Days later, the top admiral of the Navy, Michael Gilday, issued a memo urging all personnel to hold one another to a high ethical standard. “I’m counting on each of you to set a strong personal example of responsible behavior, both on and off duty,” he wrote.

Nationally, the case elevated an important question: What good is military justice when the commander in chief won’t take his thumb off the scale?

This is part of our Voice of the Year package, highlighting the people who played a major role in shaping civic discussion in 2019.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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