Thursday, February 08, 2007

War objector's court-martial ends in mistrial

War objector's court-martial ends in mistrial
By Daisuke Wakabayashi

FORT LEWIS, Washington (Reuters) - A military judge declared a mistrial on Wednesday for the court-martial of a U.S. Army officer who publicly refused to fight in Iraq and criticized the war.

The military judge ruled that First Lt. Ehren Watada had unknowingly signed a document that amounted to a confession of guilt. Watada, 28, had faced up to four years in prison if convicted of one charge of missing movements and two charges of conduct unbecoming an officer for his criticism of the war.

The mistrial was an unexpected ending to a case that had rallied the anti-war movement in the first known court-martial of a U.S. Army officer for publicly refusing to serve in Iraq.

Lt. Col. John Head, the military judge, declared a mistrial after throwing out a "stipulation of fact" -- an agreement over certain facts of the trial -- that forced the government to request a mistrial instead of immediately arguing its entire case over to prove those facts with new witnesses.

The judge said he could not accept the stipulation, because it amounts to a confession to the missing movements charge when Watada stated he is not guilty.

Watada's lawyer, Eric Seitz, told Reuters the mistrial was a "disastrous" outcome for the government because a retrial would constitute double jeopardy, which forbids a defendant from being tried twice for the same crime.

"These events today are going to be the death knell for the government's case," said Seitz, who added that the government faces an uphill climb since it requested the mistrial.

Lt. Col. Robert Resnick, chief of administrative law at Ft. Lewis, contended that double jeopardy had not attached and the government has the legal authority to retry the case.

At the center of the dispute is the defense's assertion that Watada would not go to Iraq because he considered it an unlawful order that would make him party to war crimes and as result, it was not his duty to obey it.

"There is a material misunderstanding over what this stipulation is," said Head.

The judge set the new trial to start in mid-March, but agreed the timing would be subject to change. Watada will report to duty at Fort Lewis until the new trial begins.

Army officials said the mistrial was an example of how the military justice system protects the rights of the accused.


Watada agreed to the stipulation before the court-martial began in exchange for the government dropping two additional charges of conduct unbecoming an officer.

In the stipulation, Watada said he did not board the plane with the rest of his unit to Iraq and admitted to making public statements criticizing the war and accusing U.S. President George W. Bush's administration of deceiving the American people to enter into a war of aggression.

Watada does not dispute the facts, but said it was not an admission of guilt because it does not take into account the intent behind his actions.

Asked by the judge if he thought it was his duty to board the aircraft to Iraq, Watada said no. "I felt the order was illegal," he said in the courtroom.

In a new trial, the defense will be allowed to again file a motion to argue the legality of the war. A new judge may preside over the case and all the proceedings before and during the first trial will be wiped clean.

"Everything will start from scratch," said Resnick.

Before the trial, the judge had ruled that the defense was not allowed to argue whether the war itself is illegal, asserting the matter could not be settled in military court.