Bergdahl Sentencing Delayed as Judge Weighs Trump Effect

FILE- In this Sept. 27, 2017, file photo, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl leaves a motions hearing during a lunch break in Fort Bragg, N.C. The fate of Bergdahl rests in a judge’s hands now that the Army sergeant has pleaded guilty to endangering his comrades by leaving his post in Afghanistan in 2009. (Andrew Craft/The Fayetteville Observer via AP, File)

(CN) – The long-anticipated sentencing of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl on desertion and misbehavior charges has been delayed until Wednesday after defense attorneys argued that President Donald Trump’s negative view of their client prevents him from receiving a fair sentence.

Sentencing for Bergdahl, 31, was set to begin on Monday after he pleaded guilty last week to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy for walking away from his combat outpost in Afghanistan in 2009, a move that triggered a five-year search and divisive prisoner exchange.

Instead, defense attorneys argued during a 59-minute hearing at Fort Bragg, N.C. that Trump’s recent comments about the case have cast a shadow over the sentencing phase.

The claim was first raised by Bergdahl’s defense team last Wednesday in a motion to dismiss filed just days after his guilty plea.

But Army Col. Judge Jeffery R. Nance told defense attorneys that he was not aware of Trump’s comments beyond the legal motions in the case, adding, “I don’t have any doubt whatsoever that I can be fair and impartial in the sentencing in this matter,” the Associated Press reported.

Nance said he plans on retiring as a colonel in about a year and isn’t motivated by pleasing commanders to win a future promotion, according to the AP. But Nance also strongly questioned prosecutors about what effect Trump’s comments would have on the public’s perception of the case.

The judge postponed Bergdahl’s sentencing hearing until Wednesday while he considers the motion to throw out the case over Trump’s alleged unlawful influence over the latest proceedings.

The embattled Army sergeant and former Taliban detainee from Hailey, Idaho, faces up to life in a military prison.

Trump had repeatedly condemned Bergdahl as a “dirty, rotten traitor” during the 2016 campaign, called him a “son of a bitch” who should be killed, and added that he, Trump, would be willing to kill him himself.

Nance has already rejected defense arguments that a fair trial under President Trump would be impossible. He wrote in a ruling earlier this year that Trump’s comments about Bergdahl, while “problematic,” were merely “inflammatory campaign rhetoric.”

Defense lawyers now say that updated comments Trump made last week in a Rose Garden news conference reaffirms his criticisms of Bergdahl in his role as commander-in-chief. When asked by a reporter about Bergdahl’s case, Trump said he couldn’t comment, before adding, “But I think people have heard my comments in the past.”

Prosecutors disputed the defense’s new claim at Monday’s hearing and countered that Trump’s comments were narrowly focused on the reporter’s question. Still, Nance said he was having a “hard time” with prosecutors’ interpretation, and added that he would have to factor the public’s confidence of the military justice system into his decision, the AP reported.

Bergdahl told Nance at his plea hearing on Oct. 16 that he understood leaving his base in Afghanistan’s Paktika province was against the law, and that he left on his own.

The soldier was captured by the Taliban-linked Haqqani network within hours of his disappearance on the morning of June 30, 2009. His absence set off an intensive manhunt that is blamed for some of his comrades being seriously wounded, although defense attorneys have argued that Bergdahl cannot be held responsible for how search decisions by others were conducted.

Bergdahl did not make an agreement with prosecutors to limit punishment in exchange for his guilty pleas, giving Nance a broad range of discretion in deciding the sentence.

Sentencing is set to resume Wednesday and could take several days.

Questions have lingered over the case for years. Bergdahl has been portrayed as a traitor, and his May 2014 exchange for five Taliban detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay created a political firestorm that still fuels criticism from Washington lawmakers.

Bergdahl told Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, the Army’s lead investigator, that he left his platoon’s base to begin a 20-mile run, hoping that his absence would cause enough attention to allow him to air his leadership grievances with a general. But he quickly found himself tangled in the hills before six to seven men on motorcycles carrying high-powered weapons snatched him away less than 24 hours after he walked into the enemy-infested desert.

At least two high-ranking military officials with deep knowledge of the case appear to be at odds with Trump’s position. Dahl testified that sending Bergdahl to prison “would be inappropriate” and Lt. Col. Mark A. Visger, the hearing officer who presided over Bergdahl’s pretrial hearing in 2015, recommended that Bergdahl receive no jail time.

Bergdahl is stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where he works a desk job.

A military expert who debriefed the soldier said that his five years in captivity were the worst a U.S. prisoner of war has suffered in 60 years.

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