FORT HOOD, Texas – In what military legal experts describe as a "shocker," the judge put the case of former Abu Ghraib prison guard Pfc. Lynndie England (search) back at square one.
Col. James Pohl (search) tossed out the plea agreement that the reservist reached with prosecutors after Pvt. Charles Graner Jr., (search) the reputed ringleader of the abuse, testified Wednesday on her behalf.
Pohl found that Graner's statements contradicted England's previous testimony and declared a mistrial. Pohl's finding sent the case back to Fort Hood's commander, Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, who will decide what charges, if any, England should face.
England, 22, had pleaded guilty Monday to two counts of conspiracy to maltreat prisoners, four counts of maltreating prisoners and one count of committing an indecent act, many of which were captured in photographs.
In one of the photos, England held a leash looped around the neck of a hooded, naked prisoner. Another showed her next to nude prisoners stacked in a pyramid, while a third depicted England pointing at a prisoner's genitals as a cigarette dangled from her lips.
Under military law, Pohl could formally accept her guilty plea only if he was convinced that she knew at the time that what she was doing was illegal.
Graner told Pohl that pictures he took of England holding the leash were meant to be used as a training aid for other guards. But England had told Pohl when she entered her plea that the pictures were being taken purely for the amusement of the guards.
England's plea agreement had carried a maximum sentence of 11 years in prison, but the prosecution and defense had a deal that capped the sentence at a lesser punishment; the length was not released.
Allen Rudy, a Dallas attorney, said Wednesday he could not recall a military plea being scrapped under such circumstances during his 25 years as a Navy lawyer and judge.
"That is a shocker," Rudy said. "But [Pohl] has to protect the defendant in that situation. ... He has to make sure she wasn't talked into it by her lawyer or her parents or someone else."
Neither prosecution nor defense lawyers would speak to reporters after the plea deal was discarded. England, shielded by her defense team, would not comment outside the courtroom.
Graner maintains that he and the other Abu Ghraib (search) guards were following orders from higher-ranking interrogators when they abused the detainees.
In a handwritten note given to reporters Tuesday, Graner said he had wanted England to fight the charges.
"Knowing what happened in Iraq, it was very upsetting to see Lynn plead guilty to her charges," he wrote.
Graner, said to be the father of England's infant son, was found guilty in January for his role in the scandal. He is serving a 10-year prison term .
During defense questioning, Graner said he looped the leash around a prisoner's shoulders as a way to coax him out of a cell, and that it slipped up around his neck. He said he asked England to hold the strap while he took photos that he could show to other guards later to teach them this prisoner-handling technique.
At that point, Pohl halted Graner's testimony and admonished the defense for introducing evidence that ran counter to England's plea on a conspiracy charge and one count of maltreating a detainee.
"You can't have a one-person conspiracy," the judge said before he declared the mistrial and dismissed the sentencing jury.
The judge did not discuss the other five counts to which England had pleaded guilty. Those charges were based on other photos that showed England smiling while standing next to nude prisoners stacked in a pyramid and pointing at a prisoner's genitals.
England was initially charged in Fort Bragg, N.C., with 19 counts of abuse and indecent acts that carried a combined maximum sentence of 38 years in prison. Prosecutors filed a new, reduced set of charges in February after the case was moved to Fort Hood.