Lynndie England Pleads Guilty to Prisoner Abuse
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
She is inextricably linked with the abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, and today Private First Class Lynndie England pleaded guilty to seven charges stemming from that abuse. England was one of the soldiers photographed with naked detainees at the prison in late 2003. NPR's Ari Shapiro is covering the military trial at Ft. Hood, Texas.
And, Ari, tell us what happened in court today.
ARI SHAPIRO reporting:
Well, it got off to a contentious start. At the very beginning of today's hearing, defense lawyers asked the military judge, Colonel James Pohl, to recuse himself from the proceedings. They said that he was biased. This is the judge that had heard many of the cases in the prison abuse scandal: Charles Graner, Ivan Frederick, others who are now serving time in prison. And the defense team actually alleged that the case had been moved from Ft. Bragg in North Carolina here to Ft. Hood in Texas just so that this judge would hear it.
The judge, of course, denied that he was biased. He said he was uniquely qualified to hear this case because he had read the thousands of pages of documents in the history of this case. He refused the defense lawyers' request for recusal, and that really set the tone for the day.
BLOCK: And, ultimately, Lynndie England did submit her guilty plea.
SHAPIRO: That's right. This plea was worked out last week with prosecutors and defense lawyers. There were originally nine counts against her, and the government agreed to drop two of them in exchange for her pleading guilty to the other seven. So she has now pled guilty to four counts of mistreating prisoners, two counts of conspiracy to mistreat prisoners and one count of committing an indecent act. That carries a maximum sentence altogether of 11 years.
BLOCK: What did Lynndie England have to say in court today?
SHAPIRO: Early in the day she was very terse. The judge would ask her questions, and she would calmly, quietly say, `Yes, sir.' But then he started going through the plea point by point, asking her to describe what had happened at Abu Ghraib. It seemed as though he wanted to see if she really believed that she was guilty of these crimes or if she had just been persuaded to submit a guilty plea. That led to another very contentious moment in the court.
The judge was asking her to describe the night of October 23rd, 2003. He asked Lynndie England how she came to be photographed holding a prisoner on a leash; it's come to be an infamous photograph that most of the world has now seen. England said she went to the site to visit Charles Graner, who's now serving time for his role in the abuses, and that Graner put a leash on an uncooperative prisoner and asked England to take the leash and lead the prisoner out of his cell with it. England then stood for pictures with the prisoner on the leash.
Now the judge asked England whether she knew at the time that what she did was wrong, and she replied, `I assumed it was OK because Graner was an MP'; that's a military policeman. `He had the background as a corrections officer. And with him being older than me, I didn't question him.' That made the judge ask very sternly whether England really wanted to plead guilty. He seemed to imply that her lawyers may have persuaded her to take a plea deal when she didn't really believe that she was doing anything wrong at the time she allegedly committed the crimes.
The judge said to England, `This is your trial.' And then England's defense lawyer, who's maintained all along that his client is a scapegoat, very curtly replied, `I don't know that it is.' The court then immediately recessed for lunch, and after lunch the questioning continued in that vein.
BLOCK: Ari, you mentioned Charles Graner. This is the man who had a relationship with Lynndie England, was the father of her child. How does her version that she told in court today square with what she's said or what we've known up till now?
SHAPIRO: It's been a very different story from what we've heard up until now. Lynndie England granted a media interview very early on, in which she said things similar to what Charles Graner said during his trial; namely, that higher-ups had ordered her to pose for these photos, that they were loosening up detainees for military intelligence. And that was very, very different from her story today. Today the judge kept pushing her to say that Graner or Frederick or someone else had coerced her to pose for these photographs against her will. But she kept insisting that she knew all along that it was wrong, that she did all of this of her own free will, that she could have left at any time and that, really, the strongest coercion against her was simply peer pressure. That message seemed to be an effort to get the judge to accept her guilty plea, which, at the very end of today's hearing, he finally did.
BLOCK: And, Ari, very briefly, what happens now?
SHAPIRO: Well, now we move into the sentencing phase of the trial; that will begin with jury selection tomorrow, a panel of officers and enlisted soldiers, who have the potential to sentence her up to 11 years in prison. The defense team has a chance to present mitigating evidence, which we understand may include testimony from Charles Graner.
BLOCK: Ari, thanks a lot.
SHAPIRO: You're welcome.
BLOCK: NPR's Ari Shapiro at Ft. Hood in Texas.