NORFOLK - A Navy SEAL from Perrysburg, PO 2nd Class Matthew McCabe, was acquitted by a military jury yesterday on charges of assaulting a detainee in Iraq and lying about it to investigators.
The verdict thrilled Mr. McCabe's supporters and meant the 2003 Perrysburg High School graduate can fly west next week to rejoin his fellow SEALs training in Nevada's high desert.
"We're all going to move on with our careers," Mr. McCabe said after the verdict. "It's all over and done with. … I can't wait to actually focus on work."
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 missions.
Two of his colleagues on SEAL Team 10, PO 1st Class Julio Huertas and PO 2nd Class Jonathan Keefe, were acquitted last month.
The cases against the three SEALs were based on statements from Ahmed Hashim Abed and PO 3rd Class Kevin Demartino, the Navy master-at-arms charged with guarding him 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, Abed was known to Iraqis as "The Finisher," Mr. McCabe's lawyers said. Abed 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,'•" defense lawyer 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.
A day or two later, Mr. Demartino came forward, saying he'd seen Mr. McCabe punch Abed while Mr. Huertas and Mr. 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 that the charges be dropped. Politicians said they were outraged; commentators seized on the cases as evidence of political correctness run amok. Many people pointed out that terrorist training manuals instruct followers to allege mistreatment, and Mr. McCabe's lawyers worked to make that point.
Just as crucial to the case were a half-dozen witnesses, some of them SEALs, who contradicted Mr. Demartino's version of events.
Mr. 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 General 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," Mr. Faraj said.
General Cleveland defended his handling of the matter, saying he thinks the military court system is the best process for uncovering the truth. "I will continue to take allegations such as this seriously," he said, adding that he looks forward to the three SEALs "returning to their team and continuing their duties in defending our great nation."
Perrysburg Township resident Corey LeRoux, who organized a rally in support of the accused SEALs, said, "I was thrilled. I was more than happy," when he heard of the acquittal.
Mr. LeRoux, an Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq, graduated with Mr. McCabe from Perrysburg High School in 2003, although Mr. LeRoux said they were not friends. "I think what it really boils down to is there was a commander somewhere who worried more about his career and political correctness than seeing his troops were cared for," he said.
U.S. Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green) said last night he too was delighted by the acquittal. "My philosophy is, there never should have been a trial," he said. "There should never have been any charges brought against them. These guys are heroes, and they should have been commended. Instead, they get charged."
Mr. Latta drafted a letter, co-signed by 10 other members of Congress, that was sent to President Obama yesterday. It urged him to "exercise your Constitutional authority as President of the United States and stop the Matthew McCabe trial and acquit him of all charges."
Blade staff writer Carl Ryan contributed to this report.