FORT HOOD, Texas – A military judge ruled Monday that statements by President Bush and top military leaders about alleged Abu Ghraib (search) abuses do not appear specific enough to taint the jury pool for next month's trial of a reputed ringleader in the case.
But Col. James Pohl, the judge, said he might reconsider his ruling if it becomes clear that prospective jurors may have been influenced to the degree that Spc. Charles Graner (search) may not get a fair trial.
Defense attorney Guy Womack tried to persuade Pohl that Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and high-ranking military officials proclaimed Graner guilty of abuses at Abu Ghraib and made it impossible to find an impartial jury.
At various times and venues last spring, the president called the alleged incidents "abhorrent" acts for which those found guilty would be punished, while Rumsfeld referred to "terrible activities" at Abu Ghraib.
"They all heard (the statements) and it was their chain of command saying it," said Womack. "It would be heard for the (jurors) to completely put that out of their minds."
But Womack conceded that the word "guilty" was never used in any of the statements in question, nor was Graner ever mentioned by name by the high-ranking officials.
The Abu Ghraib scandal came to light last spring with the discovery of digital photographs depicting physical abuse and sexual humiliation of detainees.
In one of those photos, Graner was shown giving a thumbs-up sign behind a pile of naked Iraqi prisoners. In another, he is seen cocking his fist as if to punch a hooded detainee.
He has been accused of jumping on prisoners, stomping their hands and feet, and punching one man in the head hard enough to knock him out.
Womack says Graner was ordered by higher-ranking soldiers and other government agents to go rough on detainees to soften them up for interrogators.
Graner, an Army reservist from Uniontown, Pa., is scheduled for trial at Fort Hood beginning Jan. 7. He sat quietly beside Womack during the 2 1/2-hour hearing.
Womack also raised the possibility that the judge himself might have been tilted against Graner, which prompted Pohl to subject himself to a round of unusual questions normally reserved for would-be jurors.
"Given all the knowledge you have about this case, do you feel that you could be influenced one way or another?" Womack asked.
"I do what I think is right," Pohl shot back. "I don't work for anybody when it comes to the trial."
Pohl also rejected a defense request that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez (search), the former U.S. land forces commander in Iraq, be compelled to testify at Graner's trial.
Graner is among seven members of the Maryland-based 372nd Military Police Company (search) accused of assaulting and humiliating male detainees at the Baghdad prison in late 2003. Charges against him include conspiracy to maltreat detainees, assault, committing indecent acts, obstruction of justice and adultery.