Bergdahl court-martial set for early 2017
Posted May 17, 2016
Fort Bragg, N.C. — A military judge on Tuesday set the court-martial of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for February 2017.
The 30-year-old soldier faces charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. The latter charge is relatively rare and carries the potential of life in prison.
Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, was quickly captured after walking off his combat post in Afghanistan in 2009. He was held as a prisoner of war for five years by the Taliban and its allies until President Barack Obama exchanged five Guantanamo Bay detainees for his safe return, saying the U.S. "does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind."
The trial had been set for August, but proceedings have been delayed after prosecutors appealed an order that they said gave the defense too much access to classified documents. A three-judge appellate panel recently ruled in favor of defense access, allowing the case to move forward.
Prosecutors had proposed holding the trial in December so classified documents could be properly reviewed and prepared, but Col. Jeffrey Nance, who is presiding over the case, said Tuesday that he didn't want the holidays to interrupt the trial. Because Bergdahl's civilian attorney will be out of the country in January, the trial was set for Feb. 6.
The prisoner swap for Bergdahl was harshly criticized, with some members of Congress saying it jeopardized national security. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has targeted Bergdahl for scorn dozens of times on the campaign trail, calling him a "dirty, rotten traitor," who "should have been executed."
Bergdahl's defense is already saying Trump is damaging their client's chances for a fair trial.
The defense's complaints about Trump have no bearing on the case right now, according to Rachel VanLandingham, a former Air Force lawyer who teaches at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. But if he is elected in November and keeps up his harsh comments about Bergdahl, the defense could more effectively argue that a President Trump is pressuring Army brass for a conviction, she said.
The lack of evidence that any service members were killed or wounded searching for the missing soldier led the Army's primary investigating officer to recommend against jail time, and a preliminary hearing officer recommended against a bad-conduct discharge.
But those recommendations were scrapped last December by the general overseeing the case. Gen. Robert Abrams, who leads the Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, sided with an Army lawyer's recommendation for a general court-martial.
Meanwhile, law enforcement officials have been notified that threats against Bergdahl continue, his attorneys said in a February court filing.
"Given the many incendiary comments that have been broadcast and otherwise disseminated about Sgt. Bergdahl, his immediate commander at Fort Sam Houston has taken measures to ensure his physical safety when leaving the installation," they wrote.
A spokesman at the Texas post declined to describe these measures, citing security considerations. But as "a group of soldiers, battle buddies, we all look out for each other," Sgt. Maj. Matt Howard said.
Bergdahl can come and go the same as any other soldier from Fort Sam Houston, where he works a desk job in a headquarters unit, handling "a lot of administrative work that needs to be done. Paperwork, moving stuff from place to place, things like that," Howard said.
Nance also ruled Tuesday on some motions regarding media access to the court-martial and related exhibits.
He ordered prosecutors to set up a virtual reading room to allow the reporters to review documents and photos, but he denied a media request that they be able to provide input in determining what information should be considered classified.
Nance said neither the press nor public would have access to transcripts of the proceedings, but he will allow the media to hire a stenographer to take notes of the proceedings to be used for accuracy in reporting.
The next hearing in the case is set for July 7-8.