Judge Tosses Out Abuse Plea After the Ringleader Testifies
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL
Published: May 5, 2005
(must register to view original article)
KILLEEN, Tex., May 4 - The court-martial of Pfc. Lynndie R. England, accused
of abusing naked Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison, was declared a
mistrial on Wednesday when a military judge threw out her guilty plea over
testimony by the convicted ringleader of the scandal and father of her baby.
The surprise mistrial canceled what had seemed to be a pro-forma punishment
phase and sent the case back to the Army commander at Fort Hood, Lt. Gen.
Thomas F. Metz, for re-examination. Government and defense lawyers said they
would meet as early as Thursday to consider their options.
The judge, Col. James L. Pohl, ordered the mistrial after Pvt. Charles A.
Graner Jr., testifying on behalf of Private England, his former lover,
portrayed their handling of a leashed prisoner as legitimate, contradicting
her sworn admission of guilt and said she had acted at his request in
helping to remove an obstructive prisoner from his cell.
"I was asking her as the senior person at that extraction," Private Graner
Clearly taken aback, Colonel Pohl broke in, lecturing the defense lawyers.
"If you don't want to plead guilty, don't," he said. "But you can't plead
guilty and then say you're not. Am I missing something here?"
Under an agreement accepted by the judge at Fort Hood on Monday, Private
England, 22, pleaded guilty to seven of nine charges of conspiracy,
dereliction of duty, maltreatment and indecent acts.
She did so in exchange for what people close to the prosecution said was no
more than 30 months in prison, although the jury panel of six officers could
impose a lower term.
Private England, who arrived at court with her 7-month-old son, Carter
Allan, seemed bewildered by the turn of events, although she maintained her
regular expression of indifference and answered reporters' questions by
motioning a hand across zipped lips. When Private Graner, 36, took the stand
in uniform, she looked down, writing, but eventually gazed up at him.
The drama of the two former intimates and accused co-conspirators
confronting each other across a courtroom went unaddressed, although the
tangle of relationships has grown with a former wife of Private Graner on
hand Wednesday to testify as a witness if called, and revelations that he
recently married another convicted defendant, Specialist Megan M. Ambuhl.
Private England seemed to betray her feelings when she looked over the
shoulder of a courtroom artist sketching Private Graner and commented, "You
forgot the horns and goatee."
Where the case goes from here was far from clear. Neither the prosecutors,
Capt. Chris Graveline and Capt. Chuck Neill, nor the defense lawyers, Capt.
Jonathan Crisp and Rick Hernandez, commented publicly afterward. But they
indicated they would follow up the judge's suggestion that they might
"negotiate a new deal - come back another day."
Colonel Pohl said he was returning the case to the "convening authority,"
that is, General Metz, who as commander of III Corps convened the so-called
Article 32 proceeding, the military equivalent of a grand jury, that charged
Private England on Feb. 11 with nine offenses carrying prison time of up to
Capt. C. Cullen Sheppard, a spokesman for the post's legal arm, called the
Staff Judge Advocate's Office, said General Metz had wide latitude, from
reinvestigating the case in a new Article 32 proceeding to ordering a
special court-martial, handling misdemeanors, or an Article 15 proceeding
that can impose lesser punishments like reductions in rank.
Private England, a personnel assistant assigned to Fort Bragg, N.C., and
transferred here for the trial, could be sent back there, Captain Sheppard
said, although she would probably remain at Fort Hood until the case was
She was originally charged with four offenses by XVIII Airborne Corps in
Fort Bragg in May 2004. In August the charges were expanded in an Article 32
Proceeding there but the case was moved to Fort Hood with other prosecutions
in December. In February, General Metz dismissed the Fort Bragg accusations,
and recharged her with Fort Hood's own Article 32 proceedings.
Captain Sheppard said he did not expect the mistrial to delay the May 11
trial of the last defendant of nine charged here, Specialist Sabrina Harman.
She has been in court observing many of the trials and was present
Of the nine, six besides Private England have pleaded guilty. Only Private
Graner has gone to trial; he was convicted in January and sentenced to 10
years at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He was reduced in rank from specialist and
was ordered dishonorably discharged once he has served his prison term.
The defense purpose in putting Private Graner on the stand to sway the jury
in favor of leniency was not spelled out but he seemed to be seeking to
portray Private England in a favorable light. On Tuesday, in fact, locked up
and waiting to testify, he passed a note to reporters saying, "It was
upsetting to see Lynn plead guilty to her charges."
Colonel Pohl had already signaled his impatience with defense efforts to
undercut Private England's admissions of guilt, of which the judge said he
had to be convinced before accepting her plea. On Tuesday he challenged
another witness, Dr. Thomas Denne, a psychologist, for seeming to suggest
she did not know right from wrong.
On the stand Wednesday, Private Graner acknowledged that "we had a
relationship" and that Private England, although not in the Military Police
but in a supporting capacity, came to visit him on various occasions in Abu
He was telling about the episode with the leash when the judge cut him off,
asking: "Why did you take the pictures?"
Private Graner replied: "It was going to be a planned extraction" and "it
was the closest way I could document it."
The judge seemed incredulous. "What you're saying is it was part of a
legitimate cell extraction, you're saying it was legitimate?" he asked,
going on to berate the defense.
"If Private Graner is to be believed, he was not violating any law, so you
could not be violating any law," Colonel Pohl continued. "If you don't
believe you were guilty, doing what Graner told you, you can't plead
He adjourned for closed discussions with the lawyers, but when court was
reconvened after three hours, the decision was made.
By portraying Private England as blameless in the leash episode, the witness
had fatally undercut her guilty plea to a vital conspiracy count, the judge
ruled, saying, "You can't have a one-person conspiracy."
The plea agreement rested on the admission and with the contradiction, he
found, she was no longer covered by the deal, exposing her, should she
insist on still pleading guilty, to an unspecified and possibly long prison
Then he turned to Private England. "Maybe you think we forgot about you," he
said, trying to explain the ruling to her but realizing, he said, "I'm not
sure you'll understand."
"It's nothing you did, it's what he did," Colonel Pohl said of Private
Graner. "Basically what it means is this trial is going to stop, to be
picked up another day."