Watada Court-Martial Ends in Mistrial


Fort Lewis, Washington – The court-martial of First Lt. Ehren Watada, a commissioned US Army officer who refused deployment to Iraq on the basis that he believed the war was illegal, has ended in a mistrial, a military court judge ruled Wednesday.

 

In a stunning defeat for military prosecutors, Lt. Col. John Head, the military judge presiding over Watada’s court-martial, said he had no choice but to declare a mistrial because military prosecutors and Watada’s defense attorney could not reach an agreement regarding the characterization of a stipulation agreement Watada signed before the start of his court-martial. The government characterizes the stipulation agreement as an admission of guilt by Watada for “missing movement” and making statements against the Iraq war that resulted in charges of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.

 

Eric Seitz, Watada’s attorney, said the stipulation Watada signed, however, was by no means an admission of guilt by his client. Rather, it was a statement of fact that his client believed the Iraq war was illegal, and that he refused to deploy to the region with his unit because of his beliefs.

 

Lt. Col. Head said he wanted to question Watada regarding the agreement to gain a better understanding of what Watada’s state of mind was when he signed it, but Seitz would not allow the judge to question his client unless he knew the questions in advance. Head said if he could not question Watada to ensure the accuracy of the document he signed prior to the start of the court-martial, he would have to throw out the agreement, meaning the charges against Watada would become null and void.

 

Issues surrounding the stipulation agreement came up when military prosecutors asked the judge to provide the military panel (similar to a civilian jury) deciding Watada’s fate with additional instructions before they returned a verdict.

 

Head said the basis of the additional instructions could result in questions about the “stipulation of fact” regarding Watada’s reasons for refusing to deploy to Iraq. The judge did not indicate the substance of the additional instructions the defense asked him to provide.

 

Head excoriated military prosecutors in open court for producing the stipulation agreement hours before he declared the mistrial. He said he would allow the government to reopen the case against Watada, but it’s unclear whether the military will do so. Even if the case is reopened, it could be months before it ends up in court.

 

Watada was charged with “missing movement” to Iraq and two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. The latter two charges stem from public statements critical of the war Watada made at a Veterans for Peace rally at the University of Washington in August 2006, as filmed by Truthout and aired on the news organization’s web site last year.

 

Watada was also charged with two separate counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman based on exclusive interviews he gave to Truthout freelance reporters and a reporter from his hometown paper, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Those charges were dropped in exchange for Watada signing a stipulation agreement acknowledging that he gave the interviews. Moreover, Watada acknowledged in the stipulation agreement that he refused to accompany his Army unit to Iraq. However, Watada’s admission did not amount to conceding guilt for the “missing movement” charge.

 

Last month, Watada discussed his decision to publicly oppose the war during a speech at the Church of the Crossroads in Moiliili, Hawaii. Speaking to a crowd of about 350, Watada said he struggled with leaving his fellow soldiers behind, but ultimately needed to take a stand because, as an officer, he could not consciously order soldiers under his command to die for a war he believes is wrong and illegal.

 

“I hated to leave my troops, but something had to be done to stop this insanity,” he said. “How could I order men to die for something I believe is wrong? Wearing the uniform is not, and is never, an excuse.”

 

 

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