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How 'Serial' Podcast May Impact the Bergdahl Case

This photo provided by Eugene R. Fidell shows Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl preparing to be interviewed by Army investigators in August, 2014. (AP Photo/Eugene R. Fidell)

Was the decision to court-martial Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl a result of his being featured on"Serial?"

His lawyer and the Army say no. But his story, as it unfolds weekly on the popular podcast, may have an effect on the case and its public perception.

Bergdahl will face general court-martial on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, the Army announced Monday. The news came just three days after Americans heard Bergdahl speak on his own behalf for the first time in interviews with filmmaker Mark Boal on the first episode of a new season of Serial.

The officer who presided over Bergdahl's preliminary hearing, Lt. Col. Mark Visger, had previously recommended that he be sent to a special court-martial, which would have limited the severity of the soldier's punishment if convicted.

Bergdahl's attorney, Eugene Fidell, told Military.com "the wheels were already in motion" for Bergdahl's court-martial when the episode was broadcast. However, he did say the timing of the two events was "fortuitous."

"I believe the more information the public has, the better," he said.

Fidell declined to say how he had advised Bergdahl regarding going public with his side of the story, citing client confidentiality.

But another former military defense attorney, Charles Gittins, said it's rare to have a defendant speak publicly ahead of judicial proceedings.

In 1998, Gittins successfully represented Gene McKinney, former sergeant major of the Army, on charges of sexual misconduct. In that case, Gittins said, he arranged a press conference for McKinney, because the public needed to hear his side of the story.

"We inoculated the jury as to our position," he said. "You've got to have a real good reason for your client to get locked into details (of his or her defense)."

In Bergdahl's case, Gittins said, the narrative has been one-sided and only the case against Bergdahl has been made public.

A report by Army Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, who led the investigation into Bergdahl's 2009 disappearance from his base in Afghanistan, has not been publicly released. Dahl has testified that he believes Bergdahl was not sympathetic to the Taliban and does not deserve jail time.

Fidell has also tried unsuccessfully to make Bergdahl's own sworn testimony available to the public.

"I think Gene Fidell decided it was time to get his client's side out," Gittins said. "While the lawyers are limited in what they can do, the client is not."

The public airing of Bergdahl's side of the story may create an additional challenge for the Army, as it will make it even more difficult to ensure that the jurors selected for the court-martial remain impartial and unaffected by the Bergdahl narrative as it continues to unfold on Serial, Gittins said.

The podcast also may affect widespread public perception of Bergdahl's case. On the internet forum Reddit, a discussion of the first Serial episode showed a broadening variety of perspectives on Bergdahl in the military community, which has overwhelmingly condemned him until now.

In the episode, Bergdahl claimed he had left his base to cause a crisis that would draw attention to unacceptable conditions there. He said he felt like "Jason Bourne" as he made plans to depart the base and reappear at another Army outpost in the region.

"That [episode] helped the opinion I had of him. Originally I just thought he was a sympathizer who wanted to join the Taliban. Now, at least I don't 100% think that is true," one user wrote.

Another disagreed.

"It's almost like that one episode did more to damage his 'reputation' than anything else and this was the perfect time to announce the charges," the user said.

Bergdahl's arraignment has been scheduled for Tuesday at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@monster.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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