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Judge refuses to drop war crimes case against Navy SEAL

A military judge refused to dismiss one of the Navy's most prominent war crimes cases Friday, only days after he removed the lead prosecutor amid allegations of misconduct. Capt. Aaron Rugh, however, did find meddling by prosecutors and investigators troubling enough to reduce the maximum penalty Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher could face if convicted of premeditated murder.

Gallagher had been facing life without parole if convicted. But Rugh said he would impose no penalty greater than life imprisonment with the chance of parole.

Defense lawyers argued for the case to be dismissed after discovering prosecutors secretly tracked their emails without court approval.

Rugh found the intrusion cast doubt on whether Gallagher could get a fair trial and "placed an intolerable strain on the public's perception of the military justice system."

Gallagher is scheduled to go to trial June 17 on murder and attempted murder charges. Gallagher has pleaded not guilty to murder in the death of an injured teenage militant in Iraq in 2017 and attempted murder for allegedly picking off civilians from a sniper's perch.

On Monday, Rugh removed the lead prosecutor, Cmdr. Christopher Czaplak. He said it was not within his power to determine whether Czaplak engaged in misconduct, but the potential for a probe into his actions could present a conflict and required his removal.

It is extremely unusual for a military judge to remove a prosecutor only days before the start of a trial. The military justice system has won few war crime convictions and been criticized for being ineffective.

Last week, Rugh unexpectedly released Gallagher from custody as a remedy for interference by prosecutors in the middle of a hearing that also included accusations they withheld evidence that could help his defense. 

Gallagher is one of the accused war criminals who the Department of Justice in May requested the case files, signaling President Trump is considering a pardon. Mr. Trump already said in March that Gallagher would be moved to "less restrictive confinement."