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May 24, 2019

Is Prez Trump gearing up for a big Memorial Day clemency push for servicemembers?

The question in this post is prompted by lots of new news reports, such as this lengthy one from Fox News headlined "Trump weighs pardons for servicemembers accused of war crimes, as families await decision." Here are excerpts:

President Trump is considering potential pardons for military members and contractors accused of war crimes as Memorial Day approaches -- deliberations that have prompted warnings from critics that the move could undermine the rule of law but also raised the hopes of their families who say the servicemembers were wrongly prosecuted.

Jessica Slatten, in an interview Thursday, told Fox News she's praying for Trump to pardon her brother, Nicholas Slatten, one of several Blackwater contractors charged in the shooting deaths of Iraqi civilians in September 2007. "Nick is innocent and our family is terrified that he will die in prison for a killing that someone else confessed to multiple times," she said. The

Blackwater case, and the 2007 massacre at the heart of it, is one of the more controversial portfolios before the president. The New York Times first reported that Trump was weighing possible pardon decisions on an expedited basis going into the holiday weekend.

Speaking to reporters Friday, Trump confirmed he’s looking at a handful of cases, while indicating he could still wait to make his decision. “We teach them how to be great fighters, and then when they fight, sometimes they get really treated very unfairly, so we’re going to take a look at it,” he said. “[The cases are] a little bit controversial. It’s very possible that I’ll let the trials go on, and I’ll make my decision after the trial.”

The review spurred harsh criticism from Democratic lawmakers as well as former top military officials, especially since not all of the accused have faced trial yet. "Obviously, the president can pardon whoever he thinks it's appropriate to pardon, but ... you have to be careful as a senior commander about unduly influencing the process before the investigation has been adjudicated," said retired Navy Adm. William McRaven, former head of Joint Special Operations Command.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement: "If he follows through, President Trump would undermine American treaty obligations and our military justice system, damage relations with foreign partners and give our enemies one more propaganda tool."

The lawyers and family members of the accused, however, insist these cases are not as clear-cut as they've been portrayed -- and, to the contrary, have been marred by legal problems. The cases include those of former Green Beret Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who admitted to killing a suspected Taliban bomb maker; Navy SEALS Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, whose own SEALS turned him in for allegedly shooting unarmed civilians and killing a 15-year-old ISIS suspect in his custody with a knife; four Marine snipers who were caught on video urinating on the corpses of suspected Taliban members; and Slatten.

Slatten is one whose case did go to trial. In fact, he faced three of them. The first ended in a conviction, but it was later thrown out -- as federal judges said he should have been tried separately from three other co-defendants, one of whom said he, and not Slatten, fired the first shots.

The second ended in a mistrial, and the third resulted in a guilty verdict. He faces a mandatory life sentence without parole, but his legal team is fighting to set him free. "Prosecuting veterans for split-second decisions in war zone incidents is wrong," Slatten's attorney said in a letter to the White House counsel's office obtained by Fox News. "Prosecuting ones for killings they did not commit is doubly so."...

Three of the other Blackwater contractors involved in the incident -- Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard -- were convicted of manslaughter, but the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that their mandatory 30-year sentence was a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

The sentences had been so severe due to a charge related to the use of machine guns. The court noted that the charge was based on a statute meant to combat gang violence, not contractors in a war zone using government-issue weapons. Their cases were sent back down to a lower court, and they are awaiting new sentences.

It is unclear if Slough, Liberty or Heard are among those Trump is considering for pardons, but Slough's wife Christin is hoping for the best. "I think that we're cautiously optimistic," she told Fox News. She said that her husband is "more than well deserving" of a pardon and is hoping that Trump will come through where other administrations have not....

Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned of the consequences that pardons could bring. "Absent evidence of innocence of injustice the wholesale pardon of US servicemembers accused of warcrimes signals our troops and allies that we don't take the Law of Armed Conflicts seriously," Dempsey tweeted Tuesday. "Bad message. Bad precedent. Abdication of moral responsibility. Risk to us."

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg also expressed concern. In a Washington Post interview, the Afghanistan War veteran described the potential pardons as "so dangerous and so insulting to people who've served."

Trump's decision could come in time for the Memorial Day holiday, though he indicated Friday he might take longer. Despite warnings that a pardon might not be appropriate for cases that have not concluded, Christin Slough noted Trump is not a "traditional president." She said he is "more interested in what's right," than how things are normally done.

May 24, 2019 at 07:03 PM | Permalink

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