FORT HOOD, Tex., July 7 — Attorneys for Lynndie R. England, the Army private who appeared in iconic photos of inmate abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, said Thursday that she will plead not guilty when the Army reopens her court-martial later this summer on charges of mistreating Iraqi prisoners.
Earlier this year, the 22-year-old soldier had agreed to a plead guilty to several charges in return for reduced prison time. But an Army judge threw out her plea in May, saying that the confession she had worked out with Army prosecutors was not believable.
The Army has since filed a new case against England, including most but not all of the charges she faced before. The announcement Thursday that she intends to fight the charges in court means her court-martial — to be held here in August or September — could be the most dramatic legal case spawned by the Abu Ghraib scandal.
It is still possible that England could negotiate a new plea bargain with prosecutors. But that seems unlikely, because the presiding judge at her court-martial will be Army Col. James L. Pohl, the man who threw out England’s earlier guilty plea. At a preliminary hearing Thursday, Pohl rejected a defense motion that he turn the case over to another judge.
Pohl ruled in May that England’s guilty plea was invalid because he found evidence that she felt she was following orders of her superiors when she posed in photos with naked prisoners. That belief constitutes a valid defense to the charges, the judge said, and so a guilty plea was not permitted under military law.
The abuse at Abu Ghraib became public in the spring of last year with the release of scores of photographs that showed Iraqi prisoners, some of them naked, hooded and shackled, being taunted and harassed by England and other U.S. soldiers. The graphic pictures prompted denunciation of the U.S. Army around the world.
In the wave of investigations that followed, Pentagon reports blamed Army commanders at the prison as well as senior commanders in Iraq for Abu Ghraib scandal.
In the criminal courts, though, the Army has prosecuted only junior enlisted soldiers. No officers at the prison, and no one in the overall chain of command, has faced criminal charges in the case; some officers were given reprimands.
Seven enlisted soldiers have pleaded guilty. Pvt. Charles A. Graner Jr., identified by the Army as the ringleader of the prison guards, was convicted of abuse charges in a court-martial and sentenced to 10 years in jail. England, a reservist from West Virginia, was an office clerk with no training as a prison guard when the Army stationed her at Iraq’s toughest prison in 2003. At 19, she was the most junior soldier charged in the Abu Ghraib case.
Although she signed a confession saying she recognized her conduct at the prison was wrong, she subsequently told Pohl that she only did what Graner told her to do. “He had the corrections-officer background, and I didn’t,” she said.
England’s lawyers unsuccessfully asked the judge Thursday to throw out all charges against her on grounds that a new court-martial would subject her to double jeopardy.
In the May court-martial, England’s attorneys presented testimony from former officers at Abu Ghraib who described the prison as a putrid, dangerous, overcrowded facility where inmates and their American guards were constantly sick, U.S. soldiers received “minimal” training, and Army commanders “totally failed to apply the Geneva Conventions.”
That line of testimony, blaming senior officers for the prison scandal, will likely be repeated when England goes on trial again.
If convicted, she faces a maximum of 11 years in prison, plus a dishonorable discharge. But if the soldier is acquitted, the result would constitute a challenge to statements by President Bush that the Abu Ghraib scandal was solely the fault of a few rogue enlisted soldiers.