Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has decided to be tried by a judge — not a military jury — on charges that he endangered comrades by walking off his post in Afghanistan.
Bergdahl’s lawyers told the court in a brief filing last week that their client chose trial by judge alone, rather than a panel of officers. He faces charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy at his trial scheduled for late October at Fort Bragg. The latter carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Defense attorneys declined to comment on the decision. But they previously questioned whether Bergdahl could get a fair trial by jury because of negative comments President Donald Trump made on the campaign trail.
Earlier this year, the judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance, rejected a defense request to dismiss the case over Trump’s criticism of Bergdahl.
Potential jurors had already received a questionnaire including questions about their commander in chief, but defense attorneys weren’t allowed to ask jurors if they voted for Trump.
Rachel VanLandingham, a former Air Force lawyer not involved in the case, said defense attorneys likely felt limited in how they could probe juror opinions.
“They lost their ability to ask all the questions they wanted to ask, one of those being: ‘Did you vote for President Trump?’” said VanLandingham, who teaches at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. “They felt that was very important ... for fleshing out whether a panel member could be fair.”
Serious wounds to a soldier and a Navy SEAL who searched for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl can be used at the sentencing phase of his upcoming trial, a judge ruled Friday, giving prosecutors significant leverage to pursue stiff punishment against the soldier.
Beyond concerns about jurors, she said Nance has so far demonstrated his objectivity.
“His pretrial rulings have shown that he’s fair,” she said.
Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban shortly after he left his remote post in 2009. The soldier from Idaho has said he intended to cause alarm and draw attention to what he saw as problems with his unit.
A military judge weighing evidence of injuries to service members who searched for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl said Friday that the soldier bears some responsibility for risky search missions triggered by him walking off his post in Afghanistan.
Bergdahl was freed from captivity in 2014 in exchange for five Taliban prisoners. Former President Barack Obama was criticized by Republicans who claimed the trade jeopardized the nation’s security.