First Lt. Ehren Watada's court-martial verdict could hinge on the Fort Lewis officer's own testimony when he takes the stand later this week to testify about why he refused to go to war.
Defense counsels hope Watada can gain the respect of the seven-officer military panel sworn in Monday and persuade the officers to reject an extended prison sentence of up to four years.
Eiya Wolfe of Seattle stands next to Interstate 5 near Fort Lewis on Monday in support of 1st Lt. Ehren Watada. She was later escorted away from the highway by a State Patrol trooper.
"The critical thing is that he be treated as someone who is principled," Eric Seitz, Watada's civilian defense counsel, said late Monday at a news conference. "Someone who is principled and has taken a stand. Not someone who should be treated as a criminal."
Monday, Seitz was a combative, sometimes defiant, presence in the courtroom as he rebuked the military judge, Lt. Col. John Head, for his rulings to restrict the scope of the trial.
"I think it is an atrocity that our witnesses are being handled in this manner," Seitz said after Head ruled that most of the proposed defense witnesses were irrelevant to the issues at hand.
In addition to Watada, Seitz said he plans to call only one other defense witness, a Fort Lewis officer who serves in Iraq with the defendant's brigade.
Seitz is a veteran attorney whose defense of war resisters dates back to the Vietnam era, and he has joined with Watada in numerous interviews to help bring national — and international — attention to the first court-martial of an Army officer who refused to go to Iraq.
Watada has drawn strong support from anti-war activists, who marked his trial's opening day with rallies outside Fort Lewis that included an appearance by actor Sean Penn. Also Monday, activists released a letter of support from Desmond Tutu, the South African archbishop and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Head has sought to keep the political backlash against the war from filtering into his courtroom. He refused to allow testimony from prominent critics of the Bush administration whom Seitz had sought to testify on Watada's behalf.
Head also issued an order restricting buttons or other shows of support for Watada from being worn inside the courtroom, according to Seitz. And at one point during the morning session, he called for defense counsel Seitz to "leave the dramatics at the door."
How the case will be decided:
How does a court-martial work? A military judge presides and rules on what evidence may be submitted. A panel of seven officers will decide 1st Lt. Ehren Watada's guilt or innocence and determine what — if any — punishment he should receive. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the charges of missing a troop movement and actions unbecoming an officer could bring a maximum of four years.
Who represents Watada? A civilian attorney, Eric Seitz, and a military defense counsel, Mark Kim.
What is the review process? The case automatically will be sent to the Fort Lewis commander and an Army Court of Review. Defense counsel can then petition for the case to be taken up by the Army Court of Appeals, and then seek further review in federal courts.
The trial is expected to last less than a week; the facts of the case are not in dispute. Watada has stipulated that he missed his brigade's deployment to Iraq in June, an offense that could bring up to two years in prison.
In court Monday, Watada also agreed to the accuracy of his statements attacking the war as illegal, the Army for committing war crimes, and the Bush administration for deceit. The Army contends these statements represent officer misconduct that could result in an additional two years in prison, while the defense counsel says his remarks represent protected free speech.
There is no minimum sentence, so if Watada is found guilty the officers panel could still opt to have him serve little or even no time.
Defense attorneys said that they had offered in pretrial negotiations to accept a six-month prison sentence to settle the charges but that prosecutors declined in order to seek a longer term.
The seven officers who will determine the sentence were selected from an original pool of 10 officers. Their ranks range from captain to colonel and include two women.
All the officers are from Fort Lewis and had read or talked about the case with other soldiers, and some stated in court that they had served in Iraq.
All the officers on the panel declared they would listen to the case with an open mind.
Some seemed skeptical of any officer who would refuse to serve with his wartime unit, and they also said there were limits to public dissent in the military.
Capt. Nicole White, however, said she was "impressed," when she first heard about Watada's decision. "Basically, it was like he was standing up for what he believes in."
The judge appeared startled by the response.
"Another word for 'impressed' would be 'surprised'?" Head said.
"Yes, sir," White replied.
Staff reporter Nancy Bartley contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company