U.S. Army deserter Bergdahl faces life in prison as sentencing hearing opens

FILE PHOTO: Sgt. Robert B. Bergdahl (C) is escorted into the court house after a lunch break during his hearing in the case of United States vs. Bergdahl in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, U.S., October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake/File Photo

Thomson Reuters

By Chris Kenning

(Reuters) - A sentencing hearing begins on Monday to determine the fate of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who could face life in prison after pleading guilty to deserting his duties in Afghanistan in June 2009 and endangering the lives of fellow troops.

The hearing at North Carolina's Fort Bragg is expected to include testimony from soldiers injured in the dangerous search for Bergdahl, who walked off his combat outpost in Paktika province to report what he said were "critical problems" in his chain of command.

During his absence, the Idaho native was captured by the Taliban and spent the next five years suffering torture, abuse and neglect in captivity. A Taliban prisoner swap won his release in 2014, a move that drew derision from within the military and the Republican Party.

During last year's presidential campaign, Republican Donald Trump called Bergdahl "a no-good traitor who should have been executed."

Former Army Corporal Jonathan Morita told Reuters in a phone interview on Sunday that he may testify this week before Army Judge Colonel Jeffery Nance about his injuries, including one to his hand during a 2009 search operation.

Morita said he believed Bergdahl should be dishonorably discharged and sentenced to as much as life in prison.

"A fair sentence, I hope, for his actions and what it created," Morita said.

Navy SEAL Senior Chief James Hatch, shot in the leg during an attempted rescue, is also expected to speak at the hearing, his attorney, Buddy Rake, told KPHO-TV last week. Rake could not be reached on Sunday.

Bergdahl, 31, pleaded guilty last Monday to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, with the latter offense carrying a possible life sentence.

His decision to enter a "naked plea" - meaning he had not reached an agreement about the sentencing terms with prosecutors - surprised some military law experts.

In determining a sentence, the judge may consider Bergdahl's time in captivity, while prosecutors may focus on the soldiers injured in the search.

Bergdahl, who testified in court that he tried to escape his captors 15 times, admitted wrongdoing but said he never intended to put anyone at risk.

"I didn't think there'd be any reason to pull off a crucial mission to look for one guy," he said, adding his actions were "very inexcusable."

Bergdahl remains on active duty in a clerical job at a base in San Antonio.

The White House released a statement on Friday saying that the president expected those involved in military justice cases to use independent judgment. It did not mention Bergdahl by name.

"Each military justice case must be resolved on its own facts," the statement said.

(Reporting by Chris Kenning in Chicago; Editing by Frank McGurty and Peter Cooney)

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