Judge Declares Mistrial in Lynndie England Case

An Army judge throws out a guilty plea in the court-martial of Pfc. Lynndie England, charged with abusing prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. The judge said evidence contradicted England's plea admitting to the charge of conspiring to mistreat prisoners.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

An Army judge has declared a mistrial in the court-martial of Private Lynndie England. The judge said the defense team presented testimony that contradicted England's guilty plea. She had pleaded guilty of conspiring to abuse detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. NPR's Ari Shapiro is covering the trial in Ft. Hood, Texas.

Ari, the judge today threw out Lynndie England's guilty plea. How did that come about?

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Well, he was talking about testimony from Private Charles Graner, who took the witness stand this morning. Graner has been described as a ringleader of the abuse. And Graner, this morning, told the story of the now infamous photograph of Lynndie England holding a leash that was attached to a naked detainee. Graner said he thought it was a legitimate technique to remove the prisoner from his cell.

Now that prompted the judge to say he could no longer accept England's plea of guilt on charges of conspiring to maltreat detainees, because he said that if Graner thought what he was doing was legal, then there was no conspiracy. The judge said it requires at least two people for a conspiracy, and England could not conspire with herself. So he said he had to impose a not guilty plea on Private England because there was no way to reconcile Graner's testimony with her original plea agreement. That nullified the entire plea deal that defense and prosecution had worked out before the trial began. And the defense was not willing to go forward with the trial without a plea deal, and so the judge declared a mistrial.

BLOCK: Now why would Charles Graner have given testimony that would contradict or undermine Lynndie England's plea agreement?

SHAPIRO: It's not exactly clear. Since he was a witness for the defense, the defense lawyers clearly thought he was going to help their case in the sentencing portion of this trial. It's possible the defense team knew what he was going to say and that they simply didn't think this was in conflict with Lynndie England's guilty plea. But it could also be that they didn't know what Graner was going to say today. Yesterday, Graner gave the media a written statement in which he said, `It was very upsetting to see Lynn plead guilty to her charges.' It may have been that he didn't want her to plead guilty, and so he gave testimony that he knew would undermine her guilty plea and send this back to the beginning.

BLOCK: Hmm. Now did the judge raise any other problems with the defense's case?

SHAPIRO: Well, yesterday, he took issue with another witness that the defense called. This was a school psychologist who had evaluated England as a child. He said that she had severe learning disabilities and social problems, and the judge was concerned that the psychologist could be implying that England wasn't able to tell right from wrong. If that was the case, the judge said, then England, again, could not plead guilty to these crimes. And eventually, they sorted that issue out, but today when the judge declared a mistrial, he did bring that issue up again.

BLOCK: Now we should clarify this all was taking place in the sentencing or punishment phase of this trial, after the guilty plea that she entered earlier this week.

SHAPIRO: That's right. She had pleaded guilty to seven of nine counts against her. She had worked out--her lawyers, rather, had worked out an entire plea deal with the prosecution. That is all now scrapped. So essentially, the last year of legal maneuvering is gone. The charges against England will now go back to the commander who's in charge of Ft. Hood, and he'll decide whether to convene another Article 32 hearing; that's sort of the equivalent of a grand jury trial in civilian justice system. After the Article 32 hearing, if it takes place, the case may then go to a court-martial again, and all of that could be months in the future.

BLOCK: OK, Ari. Thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

BLOCK: NPR's Ari Shapiro at Ft. Hood, Texas.

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