In 2009 then-Private First Class Bergdahl walked away from his combat outpost in Patika Province, Afghanistan. He was captured by the Taliban and held for nearly five years. He was recovered in a May 2014 trade for five Guantanamo Bay detainees that a report by the House Armed Services Committee found violated several laws. Ten months later, in March of 2015, now-Sergeant Bergdahl (who was promoted while in captivity as if he were a prisoner of war) was charged with desertion and misbehavior offenses, his case was referred for trial by general court-martial, and last week Bergdahl elected to be tried by a court-martial composed of a military judge alone.
As the case progressed some wondered why Bergdahl is being prosecuted after nearly five years of captivity in the hands of insurgents. The facts of his capture are relatively undisputed; in a moment of severe naivete (or maybe narcissism) Bergdahl walked away from his combat outpost and into the Afghan wilderness. The subsequent half-decade of maltreatment he suffered is undoubtedly a harsh price to pay for his terrible decision. Nevertheless – and despite the recommendation of the Article 32 preliminary hearing officer that Bergdahl face a lesser, special court-martial not authorized to adjudge a punitive discharge – Bergdahl will soon be tried by a general court-martial where he faces the possibility of a dishonorable discharge and confinement for as long as life without the possibility of parole.
Bergdahl’s decision to be tried by a military judge alone rather than a panel of members came after a year of litigation about comments made by President Trump during the campaign (as well as comments by others) that Bergdahl’s defense counsel claimed make it impossible for Bergdahl to receive a fair trial. A judge-alone trial likely waives that issue, and almost certainly cures it. It’s a surprising gift to the prosecution in a case with seemingly-overwhelming evidence, including that Bergdahl probably confessed to the desertion offense, and his post-recovery statements to film producer Mark Boal are probably a confession to the misbehavior offense as well.
One possible rationale for the decision to elect trial by a military judge alone is that a military judge will give Bergdahl credit for his time in captivity, at least by considering that time as a significant mitigating factor. This, of course, assumes that Bergdahl is guilty. But assuming that he is guilty of the desertion and misbehavior (or either) offenses that led to his capture, it’s not at all clear that his captivity mitigates his misconduct. Rather, I think there’s a stronger argument that Bergdahl’s captivity is a matter in aggravation.