War objector's court-martial ends in mistrial

By Daisuke Wakabayashi
Wednesday, February 7, 2007; 11:22 PM

FORT LEWIS, Washington (Reuters) - A military judge declared a mistrial on Wednesday for the court-martial of a U.S. Army officer who publicly refused to fight in Iraq and criticized the war.

The military judge ruled that First Lt. Ehren Watada had unknowingly signed a document that amounted to a confession of guilt. Watada, 28, had faced up to four years in prison if convicted of one charge of missing movements and two charges of conduct unbecoming an officer for his criticism of the war.

The mistrial was an unexpected ending to a case that had rallied the anti-war movement in the first known court-martial of a U.S. Army officer for publicly refusing to serve in Iraq.

Lt. Col. John Head, the military judge, declared a mistrial after throwing out a "stipulation of fact" -- an agreement over certain facts of the trial -- that forced the government to request a mistrial instead of immediately arguing its entire case over to prove those facts with new witnesses.

The judge said he could not accept the stipulation, because it amounts to a confession to the missing movements charge when Watada stated he is not guilty.

Watada's lawyer, Eric Seitz, told Reuters the mistrial was a "disastrous" outcome for the government because a retrial would constitute double jeopardy, which forbids a defendant from being tried twice for the same crime.

"These events today are going to be the death knell for the government's case," said Seitz, who added that the government faces an uphill climb since it requested the mistrial.

Lt. Col. Robert Resnick, chief of administrative law at Ft. Lewis, contended that double jeopardy had not attached and the government has the legal authority to retry the case.

At the center of the dispute is the defense's assertion that Watada would not go to Iraq because he considered it an unlawful order that would make him party to war crimes and as result, it was not his duty to obey it.

"There is a material misunderstanding over what this stipulation is," said Head.

The judge set the new trial to start in mid-March, but agreed the timing would be subject to change. Watada will report to duty at Fort Lewis until the new trial begins.

Army officials said the mistrial was an example of how the military justice system protects the rights of the accused.

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