Judge Rejects Guilty Plea in Iraq Abuse Case

Judge Rejects Guilty Plea in Iraq Abuse Case (WaPo, A1)

An Army judge on Wednesday abruptly ended the court-martial of Pfc. Lynndie R. England — the soldier who appeared in iconic photographs of inmate abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison — saying that her guilty plea was not believable.

The surprise mistrial in the high-profile prosecution does not mean the reservist will go free. The Army can charge England, 22, again and even add counts. But the judge’s rejection of her guilty plea — together with evidence at her sentencing hearing that senior Army commanders tolerated chaotic, dangerous and illegal conditions at the notorious prison outside Baghdad — could undermine the Pentagon’s assertion that the Abu Ghraib scandal was solely the fault of a small clique of enlisted soldiers.

Under military law, the judge could not accept England’s plea unless he was convinced she knew she was committing an illegal act. Her lawyers had long maintained she was following orders, but after the plea deal, England said Monday that she knew her actions were wrong.

Since her hearing began this week, the judge, Col. James L. Pohl, had expressed skepticism about her admission of guilt. His decision to stop the hearing followed testimony Wednesday morning from a former Abu Ghraib prison guard, Pvt. Charles A. Graner Jr. A military jury in January rejected Graner’s argument that he had been following orders and convicted him of abuse at the prison; he is now serving a 10-year sentence for his role in the scandal.

Abu Ghraib judge declares mistrial

A military judge on Wednesday threw out Army Pfc. Lynndie England’s guilty plea in connection with the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, declaring a mistrial after testimony suggested England did not know her actions were wrong. That testimony was offered by England’s former boyfriend and supervisor, Pvt. Charles Graner Jr., who was convicted separately in the scandal and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Graner testified Wednesday that he placed a dog leash around an Iraqi prisoner’s neck and asked England to lead him out of his cell — a legitimate technique for doing so, he said. England, who was photographed holding the leash, was just following orders, Graner said.

After that, Judge Col. James Pohl excused the jury and gave defense attorneys a tongue-lashing. Graner’s testimony, he pointed out, contradicted England’s guilty plea Monday to seven criminal counts — each of which was represented by a photograph of her posing next to naked Iraqi prisoners in humiliating positions. In making that plea, she admitted her participation and said she knew it was wrong. If she was just following orders, Pohl said, she should be pleading not guilty.

Most odd, considering that several others have already been convicted and/or pleaded guilty and sentenced without incident.

One odd thing about the press coverage of this is that they have been referring to Graner simultaneously as “the ringleader,” “supervisor,” and “Private.” In fact, Graner was a Specialist at the time of his crimes and only busted to Private, as is customary, as part of his sentencing. While Specialist is still a very low rank, they can still give orders to PFCs. Saying that a PFC was following the orders of a Private is confusing, to say the least. A convention such as “then-Specialist” or “former Specialist” would be more accurate.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. RattlerGator says:

    I understand your point on military rank; even better usage, it appears to me, would be to use their pay grade.

    “Graner, then an E-4, claims to have ordered England, an E-3, to . . . ”

    Civilians understand the hierarchy of pay grades much better than rank.

  2. notherbob2 says:

    It would be best for you to know what military procedure is before taking a position. When I was an Army Specialist, my rank was for the purpose of pay and privileges only. Corporals and sergeants gave orders that had to be followed. Specialsists were merely other co-workers who could be followed or ignored at will.

  3. LJD says:

    However a Specialist does not have the “authority” given a non-com, like a corporal (same pay grade), the chain of command often grants such responsibility (and power)to Specialists that exhibit the ability to handle it. It is in the interest of Privates to follow the orders of Specialists, that have been so authorized by their NCOs.

    The question remains though: Where were the NCOs responsible for this detatchment?

  4. James Joyner says:

    LJD: I believe several have already been convicted.

  5. LJD says:

    Sure, but the question is:
    Does the responsibility lie with those giving the orders, those following them, or both? I would say the latter.
    My point was to address the string arguing whether or not an E-4 was authorized to give orders, and if not, if she acted on her own (sick & twisted) behalf.