Watada case ends in mistrial

FORT LEWIS - The court-martial of 1st Lt. Ehren Watada ended in a mistrial Wednesday when a judge became concerned that Watada might have inadvertently confessed to an offense to which he intended to plead not guilty.

The judge, Lt. Col. John Head, set March 19 as the tentative start date for a new court-martial for the Fort Lewis officer who refused to deploy to Iraq.

Eric Seitz, Watada's civilian attorney, said double jeopardy likely would prevent a retrial.

A Fort Lewis military lawyer disagreed. Double jeopardy is a constitutional protection that bars someone from being tried for the same offense twice.

Watada was not happy about the mistrial, Seitz said.

"He's not able to get this over with," he said. "He was ready to testify."

Before the court martial, Watada acknowledged in a document known as a stipulation of fact that he did not board a plane bound for the Middle East on June 22 and that he made statements critical of the Bush administration. In return for that acknowledgement, prosecutors dismissed two charges of conduct unbecoming an officer.

Watada was charged with missing troop movement and two other counts of conduct unbecoming an officer. He faced up to four years in prison and dismissal from the service. He says the war in Iraq is illegal and that if he deployed, he would be party to war crimes.

Without the introduction of additional evidence as a defense, the panel of officers weighing Watada's fate could have found him guilty of the offenses based on the stipulation he signed.

Questioned by Head, Watada said he signed the stipulation acknowledging missing movement, but "I also understand that there is additional evidence that could boost my defense." That evidence, Watada said, was that he had a duty to refuse what he felt was an illegal order to deploy.

If the judge had disallowed that evidence, Watada would have put himself in a position of admitting guilt to the offense, the opposite of his intention.

"There is a material misunderstanding between the parties over what this stipulation is," Head told the Army prosecutor. "You believe it's a confession. The defense does not believe that."

Unable to reconcile the discrepancy, Head threw out the stipulation.

With the stipulation voided, prosecutors could resurrect the two charges they originally dismissed.

Outside Fort Lewis, Watada's supporters and opponents each saw a benefit to the mistrial.

Watada will have time to reconsider his stance and rejoin his unit, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, said Cheryl Grodeck, secretary-treasurer of American Pride Associates, an Olympia-based group that aids homeless and disabled veterans. The brigade is serving in Iraq.

Barbara Cummings, a member of Veterans for Peace who flew from her San Diego home, said that as each day passes, momentum builds in support of Watada and other war resisters.

"The longer it goes on, the more it can only benefit Lt. Watada," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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