A military photographer who served with combat troops in Iraq and had a secret-level clearance at Guantanamo Bay reached a deal Tuesday with prosecutors to settle charges of making a false statement on a U.S. passport application.
Prosecutors said Elisha Dawkins, a 26-year-old citizen of the Bahamas, took elaborate steps to pose as an American citizen, fooling officials in Florida to obtain a birth certificate and later the U.S. military.
He falsely checked a box on a 2006 passport application, indicating he had not applied before, prosecutors said, but he had actually sought the document in 2005. That application was stopped when the verification process "raised serious questions about his citizenship," prosecutors said in court papers.
Hundreds of military and political supporters said the charges should never have been brought against the photographer, who was awarded several military decorations.
"This is a man we should be celebrating," said U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, who took up Dawkins' cause. "He is all that is right with America."
Under the deal, Dawkins acknowledged checking the wrong box but did not admit to any crime, said his attorney Clark Mervis. He will likely be required to perform community service or something similar, Mervis said, and the case will be officially dropped.
It is unusual for the Justice Department to offer pretrial division, which is much more common in state courts. Olivia S. Choe, an assistant U.S. attorney handling the case, said the offer was made "in recognition of the defendant's military service."
A key to the negotiations was resolving an open deportion order for Dawkins, Mervis said. The deal means federal immigration authorities will not detain Dawkins.
"They made a concession. I respect the government for offering pretrial diversion," Mervis said.
If Dawkins had been convicted, he could have been sentenced to a maximum 10-year prison term. His trial was scheduled to begin Tuesday.
"I think this has been a real learning experience," Dawkins said outside the courtroom. "This will make me a bigger and better person."
Dawkins joined the Army reserves in 2003 and was on active duty as a combat photographer in Iraq for several months. Many of his fellow soldiers posted messages of support on a Facebook page dedicated to his case. The page had more than 500 followers this week.
In 2008, Dawkins switched to the Navy reserves and was sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he photographed life at the terrorist detention facilities and was given clearance to the base's sensitive areas. He has been awarded the Global War on Terror Ribbon and the Iraq Campaign medal, among others.
Dawkins has maintained that he always thought he was born in Miami as part of a family that emigrated from the Bahamas. He obtained what is known as a "delayed" Florida birth certificate in 2003 by filing various records with the state, including school records, a Social Security number and medical records. The birth certificate shows Dawkins was born in Miami in 1984.
Prosecutors said Dawkins was actually born that year in Nassau, Bahamas, and carried a Bahamian passport as late as 2001. They insist he knew all along he was not a U.S. citizen.
One friend, former Navy pilot Gordon Schwartz, said Dawkins never intended to deceive anyone.
"I think he should never have been charged. It was an honest mistake," Schwartz said.
Dawkins said he intends to return to his home in Jacksonville and complete a nursing degree, then join the Navy's nursing corps. He also said he will begin the process of becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen.
"That's the next step," he said.