Bergdahl court-martial scheduled for August on Fort Bragg

By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 7, 2016

Judicial officials on Fort Bragg have set aside two weeks in August for the court-martial of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

The case would arguably be the most high-profile in recent history on a post that has hosted several cases that have sparked national attention.

Bergdahl is charged with desertion and misbehavior for walking off a combat outpost in Afghanistan in 2009. He was subsequently captured and held prisoner by the Taliban for five years.

The case has been watched closely by many observers since Bergdahl's release in May 2014 in exchange for prisoners being held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

It has gained more recent fame as the subject of season two of "Serial," a popular podcast from public radio station WBEZ in Chicago.

In recordings aired on "Serial," Bergdahl says he walked off his base to cause a crisis that would catch the attention of military brass. He wanted to warn them about what he believed were serious problems with leadership in his unit.

The early stages of Bergdahl's case, including a pre-trial investigation similar to a civilian grand jury that is known as an Article 32, were held in Texas.

His first appearance at Fort Bragg came last month. More than two dozen reporters from media outlets across the U.S. attended the short arraignment hearing, in which Bergdahl deferred his plea.

He will next appear in a Fort Bragg courtroom for a pre-trial hearing on Tuesday. Four other hearings are scheduled on Fort Bragg between April and July.

The court-martial is scheduled to begin Aug. 8 and last through Aug. 19.

It's set to take place at the Fort Bragg Courthouse off Normandy Drive, with Army judge, Col. Jeffery R. Nance, presiding.

It is not uncommon for military trials of that length to be delayed several times.

Assuming the trial is not moved to another location, the case would be the most watched since the court-martial of then-Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair in 2014.

Sinclair was tried on allegations he sexually assaulted a female captain who served with him overseas and with whom he shared a tumultuous, three-year affair.

Sinclair pleaded guilty to the affair and other wrongdoing but denied the assault allegation. That charge was dropped in his plea bargain.

He paid $24,160 in a fine and restitution to the Army, and he was reprimanded and demoted two ranks to lieutenant colonel upon his retirement that summer.

Fort Bragg has been home to several high profile military cases. Many, like Bergdahl's, have not involved Fort Bragg soldiers.

Other notable courts-martial held on the post include:

The cases of eight Fort Wainwright, Alaska, soldiers who were tried in the suicide of Pvt. Danny Chen, who prosecutors said was driven to taking his own life from hazing endured while deployed in Afghanistan.

The murder trial of Master Sgt. Timothy Hennis, who was sentenced to death for a 1985 triple murder in Fayetteville. The murders were the basis of the book "Innocent Victims" and a television miniseries by the same name.

Hennis was originally convicted in civilian courts, then acquitted before being brought out of retirement two decades later to face a military jury.

That jury convicted him of the murders of Kathryn Eastburn and her two daughters, 5-year-old Kara and 3-year-old Erin, following a month and a half trial in 2010.

The murder trial of Sgt. Hasan Akbar, who was convicted and sentenced to death on Fort Bragg in 2005, following a 12-day court-martial in which he was found guilty of the March 2003 murders of Army Capt. Christopher Seifert and Air Force Maj. Gregory Stone.

Akbar, who served in the 101st Airborne Division at the time of the murders, injured 14 others during a grenade and rifle attack that took place when he was stationed at Camp Pennsylvania, Kuwait, as his unit prepared to move toward Baghdad.

Other high-profile hearings previously held on Fort Bragg include the conviction of former Army doctor Jeffrey MacDonald, who is serving three life sentences for the February 1970 stabbing deaths of his pregnant wife and two daughters in their home on post, and hearings in the case of Lynndie England, an Army Reservist who appeared in photographs of Iraqi detainees being abused at Abu Ghraib prison and was tried in 2004 for her part in the abuse scandal.

Bergdahl's case is being overseen by U.S. Army Forces Command.

Last month, Gen. Robert B. "Abe" Abrams, the commanding general of Forces Command, referred charges of desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty and misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place.

Bergdahl disappeared from Combat Outpost Mest-Malak in Paktika province on June 30, 2009.

He was subsequently captured and held until May 2014, when he was freed by the Taliban in a controversial exchange for the release of five Afghan detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Bergdahl's lawyer, Eugene Fidell, has criticized Army authorities for not following the advice of a hearing officer who recommended the case be referred to a special court-martial, which is a misdemeanor-level forum.

If convicted, Bergdahl faces a maximum potential punishment of dishonorable discharge, reduction to the rank of E-1, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and maximum confinement of five years on the desertion charge and a maximum potential penalty of dishonorable discharge, reduction to the rank of E-1, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and possible confinement for life for the misbehavior charge.


©2016 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)

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In this photo provided by attorney Eugene R. Fidell, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl prepares to be interviewed by Army investigators in August 2014.


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