CAAFlog » Court-Martial News » Sgt Bergdahl

A military judge has found that Bowe Bergdahl should serve no prison time for endangering his comrades by walking off his Afghanistan post.

The judge also gave Bergdahl a dishonorable discharge, reduced his rank to private and said he must forfeit pay equal to $1,000 per month for 10 months. The judge made no other comments.

It’s not well-reported elsewhere, but Sergeant Bergdahl’s pleas of guilty to desertion with the intent to shirk important service and avoid hazardous duty in violation of Article 85(a)(2), and misbehavior before the enemy in violation of Article 99, included exceptions and substitutions limiting his desertion to only a single day.

An Army press release available here explained that:

Sgt. Bergdahl entered pleas of guilty to both charges, but indicated his period of desertion was for only one day. Following the entry of pleas, the government introduced evidence in support of the position that the period of desertion was for the entire period of Sgt. Bergdahl’s captivity. The military judge found Sgt. Bergdahl guilty of both charges with a one day period of desertion. The military judge also denied a defense motion to dismiss one of the charges as excessive, but announced he would combine both charges for sentencing purposes.

The Associated Press reports here that:

A military judge on Thursday began deliberating the punishment for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after defense attorneys asked for no prison time while prosecutors sought more than a decade behind bars.

Army Col. Jeffery Nance said he planned to spend the afternoon considering evidence and would open court again Friday morning to continue deliberating then. It wasn’t clear when he would deliver the sentence.

Bergdahl faces up to life in prison after pleading guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy for walking off his remote post in Afghanistan in 2009. In closing arguments, prosecutors asked for a sentence of 14 years in prison, citing serious wounds to service members who looked for Bergdahl.

“Sgt. Bergdahl does not have a monopoly on suffering as a result of his choices,” said Maj. Justin Oshana, a prosecutor. Contrasting Bergdahl to the wounded searchers, he added, “The difference is all the suffering stems from his choice.”

But defense attorneys argued Bergdahl already suffered enough confinement during five years of brutal captivity by Taliban allies. They asked the judge to give their client a dishonorable discharge and no prison time. Their argument for leniency also cited harsh campaign-trail criticism by Donald Trump and Bergdahl’s mental disorders.

Any discharge as a result of a general court-martial will permanently deprive Sergeant Bergdahl of benefits administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs as a matter of law.

Various news outlets are reporting on a ruling by Army military judge Colonel Nance that the President’s comments about the Bergdahl case neither constitute unlawful command influence nor create the appearance of unlawful command influence.

For example, the Associated Press reports here that:

President Donald Trump’s scathing criticism of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl won’t prevent the soldier from receiving a fair sentence for endangering comrades by walking off his post in Afghanistan in 2009, a judge ruled Monday.

The judge, Army Col. Jeffery Nance, said the court has not been directly affected by Trump’s remarks, nor would the comments cause a reasonable member of the public to have doubts about the fairness of the military justice system. He had to consider both questions in deciding on whether actual or apparent unlawful command influence was interfering in the case.

“I am completely unaffected by any opinions President Trump may have about Sgt. Bergdahl,” the judge said. He added that prosecutors had convinced him that the Trump comments won’t put “an intolerable strain” on the public perception of military courts.

Bergdahl’s defense counsel sought dismissal of all charges (after Bergdahl pleaded guilty) because the President made a brief reference to the case during a press conference.

Thanks to our reader for the tip.

Having pleaded guilty last week without the benefit of a pretrial agreement, Sergeant Bergdahl was scheduled to be sentenced by a general court-martial composed of a military judge alone today. But the sentencing is continued until Wednesday as the military judge – Army Colonel Jeffrey Nance – considers a last-minute defense motion to dismiss. The Associated press reports here that:

The judge deciding Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s punishment said Monday he is concerned that President Donald Trump’s comments about the case could impact the public’s perception of the military justice system.

Sentencing was set to begin Monday for Bergdahl on charges that he endangered comrades by walking off his post in Afghanistan in 2009. But the judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance, instead heard last-minute arguments by defense attorneys that recent comments by Trump are preventing a fair proceeding. Bergdahl faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Nance allowed the attorneys to question him about whether he was swayed by Trump’s comments. Nance said he wasn’t aware of the comments beyond what was in the legal motions. Nance said he plans to retire as a colonel in about a year and isn’t motivated by pleasing commanders to win a future promotion.

“I don’t have any doubt whatsoever that I can be fair and impartial in the sentencing in this matter,” Nance said.

The AP report also notes that “sentencing was set to resume Wednesday because a defense attorney wasn’t available Tuesday, the judge said.”

Colonel Nance’s confidence that he can be fair and impartial, the objective evidence supporting that conclusion (including his record and his impending retirement), Bergdahl’s guilty pleas, and the enormous publicity surrounding this case, provide plenty of reasons to reject the defense motion to dismiss that is based on the President’s recent brief reference to his prior comments in the case.

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THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

October 20, 2017

*Statement Regarding Military Justice*

**

Military justice is essential to good order and discipline, which is indispensable to maintaining our armed forces as the best in the world. Each military justice case must be resolved on its own facts. The President expects all military personnel who are involved in any way in the military justice process to exercise their independent professional judgment, consistent with applicable laws and regulations. There are no expected or required dispositions, outcomes, or sentences in any military justice case, other than those resulting from the individual facts and merits of a case and the application to the case of the fundamentals of due process of law by officials exercising their independent judgment.

###

Source.

Thanks to our reader for the tip.

A reader forwarded me this motion to dismiss filed yesterday by the defense in the Bergdahl case. The basis for the motion is a comment President Trump made about the case during a press conference on Monday:

At 1:47 p.m. on 16 October 2017, President Trump held a joint press conference in the Rose Garden with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. According to the official transcript, the following colloquy occurred between the President and a member of the press corps:

Q Mr. President, Ronica Cleary with Fox 5.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes.

Q Do you believe that your comments in any way affected Bowe Bergdahl’s ability to receive a fair trial? And can you respond to his attorney’s claims that —

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I can’t comment on Bowe Bergdahl because he’s — as you know, they’re — I guess he’s doing something today, as we know. And he’s also — they’re setting up sentencing, so I’m not going to comment on him. But I think people have heard my comments in the past.

(Emphasis added.)

Mot. at 2. The motion then argues that:

President Trump stands at the pinnacle of an unbroken chain of command that includes key participants in the remaining critical steps of the case. Among these are the Military Judge, the staff judge advocate, the general court-martial convening authority, and the judges of the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Mot. at 3.

Why this justifies “dismiss[ing] the charges and specifications,” Mot. at 1, after Bergdahl pleaded guilty, is anybody’s guess.

Presumably, however, Bergdahl’s defense team will voir dire the military judge prior to sentencing.

The motion also states:

The defense offers the transcript and a DVD of the colloquy reproduced above in support of the motion. We assume the government will not contest their authenticity and accuracy. If that is incorrect, we will ask that President Trump be called to testify telephonically.

Mot. at 3 (emphasis added). The prospect of calling the President to testify by telephone about a statement that was recorded, broadcast (watch it here), and witnessed by a great many people (any of whom could testify that it was said) is almost as ridiculous as dismissal would be.

Updated to add: I previously addressed the President’s comments about the Bergdahl case in this post, in which I wrote:

Dismissal is a remedy for unlawful command influence, but it’s the most extreme remedy and it means that Bergdahl could never receive a fair trial in the wake of Trump’s pre-election comments. Getting a fair trial may be harder than it would have been before the comments – or it could be easier if the court-martial members think the comments were inappropriate and hold them against the prosecution – but there’s no evidence that a fair trial is impossible.

In that post I also observed that:

There’s absolutely no evidence that the military judge (Colonel Jeffrey Nance) or the multiple appellate military judges who have considered this issue are the slightest bit afraid to correct injustice when they see it. Rather – as I noted here in the context of comments by Senator McCain that Bergdahl also tried to use to win a dismissal – the reaction of Simpsons character Monty Burns to the Germans seems closer to the true feelings of Army trial and appellate military judges in the face of any kind of improper influence.

As suspected here, and expected here, the Associated Press reports here that Sergeant Bergdahl pleaded guilty this morning.

Surprisingly, the guilty pleas (a dive) were entered without the benefit of a pretrial agreement (a naked plea). From the AP report:

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a Taliban captive for five years after abandoning his post in Afghanistan, pleaded guilty Monday to desertion and misbehavior-before-the-enemy charges that could put him in prison for life.

“I understand that leaving was against the law,” said Bergdahl, whose decision to walk off his remote post in Afghanistan in 2009 prompted intense search and recovery missions, during which some of his comrades were seriously wounded.

Bergdahl, 31, is accused of endangering his comrades by abandoning his post without authorization. He told a general after his release from five years in enemy hands that he did it with the intention of reaching other commanders and drawing attention to what he saw as problems with his unit.

The prosecution made no agreement to limit Bergdahl’s punishment in return for the soldier’s guilty pleas. The judge, Army Col. Judge Jeffery R. Nance, reminded Bergdahl that he could spend the rest of his life in prison, and asked him one last time if he wanted to plead guilty. “Yes,” Bergdahl replied, and the judge accepted the pleas.

(emphasis added).

Story here.

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is expected to plead guilty soon to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy rather than face trial for leaving his Afghanistan post.

That’s according to two individuals with knowledge of the case.

They tell The Associated Press that Bergdahl will submit the plea later this month and sentencing will start Oct. 23. The individuals weren’t authorized to discuss the case and demanded anonymity.

Two months ago I noted that Bergdahl elected trial by a military judge alone, and I commented that the choice was a “preface to a guilty plea.”

Thanks to our reader for the tip.

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.

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After so many motions, writ-petitions, and breathless claims that Army Sergeant Bergdahl can’t get a fair trial by court-martial on the charges of desertion with the intent to shirk important service and avoid hazardous duty in violation of Article 85(a)(2) and misbehavior before the enemy in violation of Article 99 for leaving his combat outpost in Patika Province, Afghanistan (leading to his capture by the Taliban and captivity for nearly five years), Bergdahl has elected to be tried by a court-martial composed of a military judge alone:
(source).

CAAF issued this order on Friday:

No. 17-0307/AR. Robert B. Bergdahl v. Jeffrey R. Nance and United States. CCA 20170114. No. 17-0307/AR. Robert B. Bergdahl, Appellant v. Jeffrey R. Nance, Colonel, J.A. Military Judge, and United States, Appellees. CCA 20170114. On consideration of the writ-appeal petition and the motion of Former Federal Judges to file an amicus brief, it is ordered that said motion is hereby denied, and that said writ-appeal petition is hereby denied.

This was Bergdahl’s seventh writ petition, and it sought dismissal of his case because of things said during the presidential campaign (last discussed here).

Bergdahl’s prior trips to Judiciary Square were noted here (#6), here (#5), here (#4), here (#3), here (#2), and here (#1).

Here is the Fayetteville Observer’s coverage of today’s scheduled hearing on motions in the SGT Bowe Bergdahl case. In today’s motions “prosecutors in April asked for the declassification of seven documents they plan to use during the proceedings.” In case you don’t get out much, from the FayObs:

Bergdahl is charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place. He could face life imprisonment if convicted of misbehavior before the enemy.

He walked off his remote post in Afghanistan in 2009 and was subsequently held by the Taliban for five years.

Bergdahl’s appeal remains pending at CAAF, Stars and Strupes coverage here.

In an opinion piece published by the Alaska Dispatch News and available here, Professors Rachel VanLandingham and Joshua Kastenberg (both retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonels and former Air Force military judges) call for the complete dismissal of the charges against Sergeant Bergdahl (CAAFlog news page) because:

On the campaign trail, then-candidate Trump repeatedly, and publicly, condemned Bergdahl as a traitor, and variously called for his execution by firing squad and by being pushed out of an airplane. This was not a one-off event; candidate Trump made his conclusion that Bergdahl is a traitor and should be executed a campaign meme, returning over and over to the same rhetoric.

Trump has never disavowed these comments. While it is true he hasn’t repeated them in the few short months he’s been in office, that’s because he doesn’t have to -– he knows he has already sent a very loud, very clear and very powerful message to his military subordinates (many of whom voted for him) he wants Bergdahl convicted and given the harshest punishment possible.

They echo the oft-repeated claim of Bergdahl’s defense counsel that the President’s campaign-trail comments are unlawful command influence so severe that it can’t be remedied. That claim is the subject of a seventh petition for extraordinary relief currently pending before CAAF (noted here) (pleadings available here).

While Professors VanLandingham and Kastenberg argue that the continued prosecution of Bergdahl risks “the fairness, credibility and integrity of the military justice system,” I believe that the danger to military justice is in dismissal, not continued prosecution.

Dismissal would, as I explained here, result in Sergeant Bergdahl’s honorable discharge from the Army, and it would also guarantee him other benefits in connection with his alleged desertion (and subsequent capture by the Taliban); an offense that, as I explained here, it seems Bergdahl confessed to committing. Bergdahl also engaged in a dialogue with filmmaker Mark Boal that resulted in roughly 25 hours of tape, and Bergdahl allowed the Serial podcast to use those recordings (according to the Serial podcast; link to episode transcript). Those recordings contain more damaging admissions and other aggravating evidence (some discussion here), and their publication is likely far more damaging to Bergdahl than anything said on the campaign trail.

Dismissal is a remedy for unlawful command influence, but it’s the most extreme remedy and it means that Bergdahl could never receive a fair trial in the wake of Trump’s pre-election comments. Getting a fair trial may be harder than it would have been before the comments – or it could be easier if the court-martial members think the comments were inappropriate and hold them against the prosecution – but there’s no evidence that a fair trial is impossible.

Professors VanLandingham and Kastenberg also lash out at their Army colleagues:

Bergdahl’s defense has already tried to get this case dismissed on these grounds. However, not surprisingly, the military judge and Army appellate court (also consisting of active-duty military members) have declined to cross their commander-in-chief in that manner.

I think this is a foul blow. There’s absolutely no evidence that the military judge (Colonel Jeffrey Nance) or the multiple appellate military judges who have considered this issue are the slightest bit afraid to correct injustice when they see it. Rather – as I noted here in the context of comments by Senator McCain that Bergdahl also tried to use to win a dismissal – the reaction of Simpsons character Monty Burns to the Germans seems closer to the true feelings of Army trial and appellate military judges in the face of any kind of improper influence. VanLandingham and Kastenberg must have a remarkably dim view of the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

The credibility of the military justice system is founded in its systemic ability to do justice, not in the result of one particular (and factually and emotionally thorny) case. If those championing dismissal of the charges against Bergdahl really believe that the trial military judge and the Army CCA are incapable of remedying unlawful command influence committed by a presidential candidate who subsequently gets elected, then the damage to the military justice system is already done.

There is significant evidence that Bergdahl committed multiple offenses in departing and staying away from his combat outpost, and many of his fellow soldiers suffered as a result. That Bergdahl spent five years in captivity is a mitigating factor for sure, but it’s one that must be considered in context with the other facts of the case.

The appropriate place for that to occur in the first instance is neither the court of public opinion nor the appellate courtroom; it’s a court-martial.

CAAF granted review in three cases last week. All are from the Army:

No. 17-0187/AR. U.S. v. Brian G. Short. CCA 20150320. On consideration of the petition for grant of review of the decision of the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals, it is ordered that said petition is hereby granted on the following issue:

WHETHER GOVERNMENT COUNSEL COMMITTED PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT WHEN THEY MADE IMPROPER ARGUMENT AFTER REPEATEDLY ELICITING INADMISSIBLE TESTIMONY.

Briefs will be filed under Rule 25.

The CCA’s opinion in Short is available here.

No. 17-0200/AR. U.S. v. Carlos A. Gonzalez-Gomez. CCA 20121100. On consideration of the petition for grant of review of the decision of the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals, it is ordered that said petition is hereby granted on the following issue:

WHETHER DILATORY POST-TRIAL PROCESSING VIOLATED APPELLANT’S DUE PROCESS RIGHTS AND WARRANTS RELIEF WHEN 782 DAYS ELAPSED BETWEEN DOCKETING AT THE ARMY COURT AND OPINION.

Briefs will be filed under Rule 25.

The CCA’s opinion in Gonzalez-Gomez is available here.

No. 17-0203/AR. U.S. v. David L. Jerkins. CCA 20140071. On consideration of the petition for grant of review of the decision of the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals, it is ordered that said petition is hereby granted on the following issue:

WHETHER THE MILITARY JUDGE ABUSED HER DISCRETION BY ALLOWING A GENERAL OFFICER MEMORANDUM OF REPRIMAND INTO SENTENCING EVIDENCE WHERE THE REPRIMAND WAS ISSUED TWO WEEKS BEFORE THE COURT-MARTIAL AND CONTAINED HIGHLY PREJUDICIAL AND MISLEADING LANGUAGE.

Briefs will be filed under Rule 25.

The CCA’s opinion in Jerkins is available here.

CAAF also docketed a petition for a writ of prohibition in United States v. Katso (CAAFlog case page):

No. 17-0310/AF. Joshua Katso, Petitioner v. Christopher F. Burne, Lieutenant General, United States Air Force, in his official capacity as Judge Advocate General of the United States, and Katherine E. Oler, Colonel, United States Air Force, in her official capacity as Chief of the United States Air Force Government Trial and Appellate Counsel Division. CCA 38005. Notice is hereby given that a petition for extraordinary relief in the nature of a petition for writ of prohibition was filed under Rule 27(a) on this date.

Finally, CAAF docketed a writ petition in Bergdahl. As the seventh such petition by an increasingly desperate Bergdahl (whose trial is expected to occur this summer), its filing is just barely noteworthy.