NAVAL STATION NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - Two Navy SEALs accused in the mistreatment of an Iraqi suspectin the 2004 slayings of four U.S. contractors were arraigned inmilitary court Monday, and one SEAL said he was gratified bysupport from the public and some members of Congress.
The judge scheduled courts-martial next month for Petty Officer2nd Class Matthew McCabe of Perrysburg, Ohio, and Petty Officer 1stClass Julio Huertas of Blue Island, Ill. A third SEAL will bearraigned later.
The SEALs have received an outpouring of public support on theInternet, and a California congressman has led a campaign urgingDefense Secretary Robert Gates to intervene. About three dozenprotesters, including the mother of one of the slain contractors,stood outside the Norfolk Naval Station gate Monday morning holdingsigns of support.
McCabe is accused of striking the detainee in the midsection,dereliction of duty for failing to safeguard the detainee, andlying to investigators. He deferred entering a plea until his Jan.19 trial.
McCabe told reporters he was confident he would beexonerated.
"I feel very good about it," he said as he made his way throughthe crowd of supporters, shaking hands and thanking them. "Thesupport is phenomenal. It makes us feel better, all these peoplebeing behind us."
Huertas pleaded not guilty to charges of dereliction of duty,lying to investigators and impeding an investigation. His trial wasset for Jan. 11.
"He's been a hero -- two tours of Iraq and one tour ofAfghanistan -- and now this is the thanks he gets," Huertas'civilian attorney, Monica Lombardi, told reporters after thearraignment.
Military attorneys were not available for comment.
McCabe and Huertas both deferred a decision on whether to betried by a military judge or jury. Lombardi said they couldn'tchoose because they still have not received the prosecution'sevidence.
The men could have accepted a nonjudicial reprimand but wantedto go to trial to clear their names, Lombardi said. A reprimandcould have resulted in a loss of rank; if they are convicted attrial, they could get up to a year in jail, a bad conductdischarge, or a loss of rank or pay.
McCabe declined to talk to reporters about specifics of thecase. His father, Marty McCabe of Las Vegas, said all his son didwas his job.
"It just turns my stomach to have these people send him overthere and put him in harm's way, and then they don't have his backwhen he gets home," Marty McCabe said.
Military officials have cautioned against a public rush tojudgment, saying a true picture will emerge when all the evidenceis heard. However, more than 45,000 people have signed onto aFacebook page supporting the SEALs, and U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter,R-Calif., said in a letter to Gates last week that the prosecutionwas an overreaction by the military.
The charges stem from an alleged assault after the SEALscaptured Ahmed Hashim Abed in early September. Abed is believed tobe connected to the killings of four Blackwater security guards whowere protecting a convoy when they were attacked by Iraqiinsurgents. Their burned corpses were dragged through the city, andtwo of them were hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River.
Donna Zovko of Cleveland, whose son Jerry Zovko was among theslain contractors, said the prosecution of the SEALs who capturedAbed was "very heartbreaking."
"For these young Navy SEALs, I am very thankful and hopeful thatthey will be OK," Zovko said.
Along with McCabe and Huertas, Petty Officer Jonathan Keefe ofYorktown, Va., is charged with dereliction of duty and making afalse official statement. His arraignment has not beenscheduled.
The SEALs, based at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek inNorfolk, are not in custody.
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A company has been hired to complete the repairs to the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge on the Outer Banks, but how long those repairs will take remains unknown.
Drivers traveling between Hatteras Island and the mainland were forced to use an emergency ferry Wednesday, following the sudden closure of the Bonner Bridge Tuesday.
State officials say construction on a new Bonner Bridge has been delayed for years because of a legal battle with an environmental group.