SEAL found not guilty of assaulting suspected Iraqi terrorist
By Kate Wiltrout
© May 7, 2010
Sometime next week, Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew McCabe will fly west and rejoin a group of his fellow SEALs training in Nevada’s harsh high desert.
For the first time in more than seven months, he will throw himself into the job that he loves. Instead of reliving what happened one night in Iraq last September, hours after he took an alleged Iraqi terrorist into custody, the 24-year-old commando will concentrate on preparing for future missions.
McCabe’s future with the SEALs was in doubt before a jury acquitted him Thursday on charges of assaulting a detainee and lying about it to investigators.
Last month, two other members of SEAL Team 10, Petty Officer 1st Class Julio Huertas and Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Keefe, were acquitted on related charges at courts-martial in Iraq.
“We’re all going to move on with our careers,” McCabe said after the verdict. “It’s all over and done with. ...I can’t wait to actually focus on work.”
The cases against the three SEALs were based on statements from Ahmed Hashim Abed and Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin Demartino, the Navy master-at-arms charged with guarding him for a few hours after his capture.
Abed didn’t appear in person, but his testimony was recorded and played back for the seven-member jury. He was far from a sympathetic character. In addition to his alleged involvement in the murder of four Blackwater contractors in Fallujah in 2004, McCabe’s lawyers said Iraqis knew Abed as “The Finisher.” He was reputed to have the decapitated bodies of his victims delivered to their families’ doorsteps.
Defense lawyers continually reminded jurors of the alleged victim’s background.
“We’re here because a mass murderer, a vile person cloaked in a human body, said 'I was beaten,’” Haytham Faraj told the jury during closing arguments.
Questions about Abed’s treatment arose shortly before he was transferred to Iraqi custody, when the SEAL detachment commander noticed blood on Abed’s clothes.
He called a meeting of all the personnel who’d been in contact with Abed to ask them what happened. A day or two later, Demartino came forward, saying he’d seen McCabe punch Abed while Huertas and Keefe watched.
The matter was investigated, and made its way up the chain of command. When the three SEALs chose not to have the matter handled administratively, Army Maj. Gen. C.T. Cleveland, head of Special Operations Command Central, decided to proceed to courts-martial.
His decision sparked an outcry: more than 100,000 people signed online petitions asking the charges be dropped. Politicians said they were outraged; commentators seized on the cases as evidence of political correctness run amok in the military.
Many people pointed out that terrorist training manuals instruct followers to allege mistreatment, and McCabe’s lawyers entered excerpts from the so-called Manchester Manual into evidence to make that point.
Just as crucial to the case were a half-dozen witnesses, many of them SEALs, who contradicted Demartino’s version of events.
Faraj and fellow defense attorney Neal Puckett said the acquittals prove the military justice system works. And though in the past, both have been critical of Cleveland’s decision to court-martial the SEALs, the attorneys were more philosophical after the victory.
“No terrorist organization can claim that the American military didn’t press forward and really investigate,” Faraj said.
Added Puckett: “Maybe the specter of Abu Ghraib is dissipating a little bit.”
Cleveland defended his handling of the matter, saying detainee abuse has “strategic implications” for the military and national security.
“Despite the opinion of some of those who preferred that these charges not proceed, I allowed these charges to go forward because I truly believe that the best process known for uncovering the truth, when the facts are contested, is that process which is found in our adversarial justice system,” Cleveland said in a statement.
“I will continue to take allegations such as this seriously. ... I look forward to Huertas, McCabe, and Keefe returning to their team and continuing their duties in defending our great nation.”
Kate Wiltrout, (757) 446-2629, firstname.lastname@example.org