SAN DIEGO – A military jury acquitted a Navy SEAL (search) lieutenant Friday of beating an Iraqi prisoner who later died.
Jurors deliberated about three hours before finding Lt. Andrew K. Ledford (search) not guilty of all charges. The 32-year-old SEAL had faced up to 11 years in military prison if he had been convicted of assault, dereliction of duty, conduct unbecoming an officer and making false statements.
Ledford, who had stood at attention for the verdict's reading, burst into a huge smile and embraced his attorney upon hearing he was acquitted.
"I think that's what makes this country great is that there is a system in place and it works," he said outside court.
Ledford's family, including his pregnant wife, wiped away tears as several SEALs who had served with him in Iraq applauded.
Navy prosecutors left the courtroom without commenting.
"I hope that someone receives a message from this outcome," Ledford's civilian attorney, Frank Spinner, told reporters. "That we have valiant warriors, brave SEALs, who put their lives on the line and they're human."
Prosecutors said that Ledford failed as a leader on a November 2003 mission after he and his men captured Manadel al-Jamadi (search), a suspect in the bombing of Red Cross offices in Baghdad that killed 12.
During a brief stop at an Army base, members of Ledford's SEAL platoon testified that they punched, kicked and struck al-Jamadi with muzzles of their rifles. Instead of ordering his men to halt the beating, Ledford accepted a subordinate's offer to "give this turd a knock" and punched the bound prisoner in the arm, Navy prosecutor Lt. Chad Olcott said.
No witness who appeared during the four-day court martial testified that they saw Ledford strike al-Jamadi. The only evidence of the punch came in Ledford's own sworn statement last year to Navy criminal investigators. On the witness stand Thursday, Ledford denied punching the detainee.
Eight SEALs and one sailor who served under Ledford have received administrative punishments for abusing al-Jamadi and other detainees.
Al-Jamadi died shortly after the SEALs turned him over to the CIA while he was being interrogated in Abu Ghraib prison. Spinner said the CIA should fully disclose its role in the case.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press show al-Jamadi died while suspended by his wrists, which were handcuffed behind his back.
The CIA has forwarded its investigation to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. No charges have been filed against anyone at the CIA.
Ledford also had posed for a picture hoisting a can of Red Bull energy drink as he and his men gathered around al-Jamadi in the back of a Humvee, and he testified that he regretted having done so.
"This case represents nothing more than prosecutorial excess as a result of the pictures and abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib," Spinner told the jury during his closing argument.
Through his attorney, Ledford said he plans to continue serving as a SEAL. He has been selected for the rank of lieutenant commander, a promotion that was placed on hold pending the trial's outcome.