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England Awaits Sentencing in Abu Ghraib Case

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We go now to Ft. Hood, Texas. At the first day of a prison abuse trial there, Army Reservist Lynndie England pleaded guilty to seven of the nine counts against her. She is one of the most recognizable soldiers from the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. NPR's Ari Shapiro is covering the court-martial at Ft. Hood.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Lynndie England sat impassive at the defense table as the military judge, Colonel James Pohl, methodically worked his way through the charges. Photograph by photograph, he elicited from her the stories behind the images that have become so iconic in the prison abuse scandal.

First, Pohl and England discussed the photograph where the Army private stands holding one end of a leash. The other end is tied around a prisoner's neck. The detainee is on the floor, crawling. England said that story began when she went to visit her then-boyfriend, Charles Graner, at tier 1A of Abu Ghraib prison. Graynor was dealing with an uncooperative detainee and England said he put the leash on the man's neck, then handed it to her and asked her to lead the prisoner out of the cell. The judge yesterday asked England, `Did you question Graynor at all about the treatment or did you assume that it was OK?' England replied, `I assumed it was OK because he was military police and he had background as a corrections officer. And with him being older than me, I didn't question him.'

The judge became very serious. He wanted to know, if England thought she was doing the right thing at the time, how could she now be pleading guilty to mistreating detainees? He seemed to imply that England's defense lawyers could have coerced her to plead guilty even though she was following what she thought were lawful orders at the time. Captain Colin Sheperd, a spokesman for the military justice system, explains that this inquiry by the judge is something that separates the military from the civilian justice system.

Captain COLIN SHEPHERD (Spokesperson, Military Justice System): The military justice system requires the military judge, when a person is pleading guilty, to inquire into the plea and ensure that there's a factual basis behind the plea of guilty. The judge must be convinced that the person is guilty and must also be convinced that the person believes they are, in fact, guilty.

SHAPIRO: In other words, in military trials the accused can't plead guilty just to get a lighter sentence.

After the lunch break, Lynndie England seemed to understand that she had to convince the judge of her guilt. The questioning resumed. `Did you choose to pose for the photographs or did you feel you had to?' England replied, `I chose, sir.' `Could you have dropped the leash?' `Yes, sir.'

Throughout the afternoon, England testified that although she succumbed to peer pressure from her friends, she ultimately acted freely, knowing all along that she was committing a crime. That goes against earlier claims in which England implied she'd been coerced into abusing detainees. She made this comment to a local CBS affiliate in Denver last year.

Army Reservist LYNNDIE ENGLAND: I was instructed by persons in higher rank to stand there, hold this leash and look at the camera.

SHAPIRO: Now the court-martial enters the sentencing phase. England could serve a maximum of 11 years in prison. Her defense team has to perform a balancing act. England's lawyers can call witnesses to testify on her behalf. But if that testimony crosses the line from extenuation and mitigation into an actual defense, then the defense team has a problem. At the end of yesterday's hearing, Judge Pohl described the situation this way: `If you're telling me you have a defense, you're telling me you're not really guilty. If that were to come up and I can't resolve the issue, it means I enter a plea of not guilty on your behalf, you lose the pre-trial agreement and the trial starts all over again.'

This is another requirement of military justice, says Captain Sheperd.

Capt. SHEPERD: If a witness testifies or the accused testifies and essentially opens up an issue of fact of whether she is guilty, the judge has a duty at that point and time to insure that inconsistency is resolved.

SHAPIRO: So in a way, the defense's witnesses can't be too good at explaining away England's actions or the defense strategy will backfire and the plea bargain will collapse. England's lawyers say they'll call Charles Graner to the witness stand. He'll testify that England was young and inexperienced. They'll also bring in psychologists as expert witnesses. The trial is expected to end this week.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Killeen, Texas.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 5, 2005 at 10:46 AM EDT
This story incorrectly reported that civilian and military courts have a different standard for evaluating guilty pleas. That is is incorrect. As in the military, judges in federal and many state courts must determine that a guilty plea is voluntary and based in fact.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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