Jurors in Bergdahl case will be quizzed about Trump

The president regularly referred to the sergeant as a "traitor."

June 22, 2017, 12:19 PM

— -- The judge overseeing the trial of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl decided Thursday that potential jurors will not be asked in a pretrial questionnaire whether they voted for Donald Trump. It will, however, still contain questions about Trump and whether they have posted on social media about Bergdahl.

During last year's presidential campaign, Trump on numerous occasions in his stump speeches referred to Bergdahl as a "dirty, rotten traitor" and a "bum," among other terms, as he decried the exchange of five Guantanamo Bay detainees for Bergdahl's release from Taliban captivity in Afghanistan.

Bergdahl disappeared from his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and was held captive for almost five years. He was charged in 2015 with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy — the latter a military crime that carries a potential life sentence.

The judge handling Bergdahl's case previously ordered lawyers on both sides to develop the questionnaire for possible jurors and discussed the matter at a hearing Wednesday.

Bergdahl's defense developed 16 questions about possible jurors' voter status, who they voted for, how they feel about Trump, whether they are aware of his statements and how they feel about them — suggesting that those with strong views about the president are unfairly biased. Prosecutors contended that a vote for Trump doesn't necessarily indicate an opinion on Bergdahl.

Judge Col. Jeffery Nance said Wednesday he agreed with most of the questions — about 40 in all — on the questionnaire and that he is "making tweaks" to the list. He further indicated that he intends to release the questionnaire to get it to potential panel members next week. After they provide answers, the attorneys will decide whether they want to ask more questions in writing or have potential jurors respond in voir dire. Their answers will remain sealed to the public.

Prosecutors additionally argued Wednesday for the ability to present witnesses in the sentencing phase who contend that the search for Bergdahl caused harm to the search party. Nance previously prohibited such testimony in the trial phase, saying that it would unfairly influence the jury.

Senior Chief Petty Officer James Hatch, a retired Navy SEAL, appeared in court in support of the prosecution to testify about his SEAL task force, which attempted a search for Bergdahl in 2009. Hatch was shot in the leg during the mission and eventually needed 18 surgeries, which forced his retirement. He testified that his team would not have been on the mission if it hadn't been searching for Bergdahl and that hostage rescues are more dangerous than regular missions.

Nance has not yet ruled on whether Hatch's testimony will be admissible during the sentencing phase. The next pretrial hearing in the case is scheduled for July 27.

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