Navy's top lawyer accused of illegally targeting SEAL commandos – The San Diego Union-Tribune

The Navy’s top lawyer stands accused of unlawfully meddling in criminal cases targeting America’s elite commandos, and he’s being grilled by attorneys seeking to overturn the conviction of a Coronado-based Navy SEAL whom his admiral and other officers thought was innocent.

Legal experts consulted by The San Diego Union-Tribune agree that the allegations swirling around Vice Adm. James Crawford III, the Navy’s judge advocate general, are highly irregular. They point to his deposition this week in Washington, D.C., a session in which one of the attorneys questioning him said the admiral was unable to recall key details about a Navy SEAL’s rape case that he’s accused of illegally influencing.

Crawford has repeatedly declined to comment for stories about the case after a military appellate court began investigating the claims of his intervention.

That case involves an ongoing appellate hearing for Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Keith Barry, who was court-martialed and convicted of rape in San Diego in 2015. He received a sentence of three years in prison and a dishonorable discharge. He has completed his prison term and left the Navy SEALs, but is appealing his conviction in hopes of restoring his reputation.

A team of Navy investigators was ordered to Coronado to review the case on the behalf of Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William F. Moran’s office, and they concurred with the previous decision to not prosecute the SEALs.

Once the Navy’s decision is final, NCIS agents can then bring the case to federal prosecutors, which is what might have happened with the Lovelace drowning.

In an email to the San Diego Union-Tribune, NCIS spokesman Ed Buice insisted that Crawford didn’t direct agents “to take this investigation one way or the other.”

”In fact,” Buice wrote, “he recused himself from the decision-making process regarding this investigation once it went above (Navy Special Warfare) because he wanted to remain neutral in his advice to the (Chief of Naval Operations) on this matter.”

Citing King’s email, others aren’t so sure. When brought to Jeremiah Sullivan, the San Diego-based attorney defending one of the unnamed SEAL instructors, he accused the Navy of committing a “miscarriage of justice” through “venue shopping” the case to federal prosecutors. He’s called for more investigations into Crawford’s role overseeing criminal probes.

“The Navy determined that no crime has been committed,” he said. “Is the JAG Corps circumventing justice here by shipping a case to the U.S. Attorney’s office? It looks to me that they’re pawning off their bad cases that are too weak to prosecute.”

Word that the Union-Tribune had received records in both the Barry and Lovelace cases triggered numerous, sometimes frantic, calls from top Navy officials nationwide on Monday and Tuesday, with flag officers or their representatives inquiring into Crawford’s involvement in both matters.

Eugene R. Fidell, the military law instructor at Yale Law School, said both cases possibly linked to Crawford were very unusual but pointed out the need for broader reforms to the way the armed forces dispense justice.

“These cases illustrate that Congress needs to get serious about the military justice system and turn it from an 18th century system into one fit for the 21st century,” said Fidell. “Military decisions on who gets prosecuted, and for what, are based on a system that was used by King George III. Until that changes, you’ll continue to see controversies like these.”

Fidell has long advocated for lawmakers to strip commanders of the power to decide who is prosecuted, to pick jurors and to vacate verdicts and sentences, vesting charging authority instead with senior attorneys independent of the chain of command and jury selection with an outside and impartial commissioner.

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