FORT MEADE, Md. – An Army dog handler convicted of tormenting Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison with his snarling animal was unrepentant about the abuse charges at his sentencing hearing, telling a court-martial jury that soldiers aren't supposed to be "soft and cuddly."
Sgt. Michael J. Smith, 24, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was found guilty Tuesday of six of 13 counts. A judge later dismissed one count, saying it duplicated another, leaving Smith facing a possible penalty of up to 8 1/2 years in prison.
His sentencing hearing resumed Wednesday with discussion among the lawyers and judge about jury instructions.
Smith told the court-martial jury that he wished he had learned in basic training how to better avoid getting into trouble with superiors. Soldiers who do not "end up in a heap of trouble," he said.
Prosecutors said Smith had let his unmuzzled black Belgian shepherd Marco bark and lunge at several prisoners for his own amusement. One of the photographs that exposed the Abu Ghraib scandal shows his dog straining on its leash, just inches from the face of a cowering prisoner.
"Soldiers are not supposed to be soft and cuddly," Smith testified.
Defense attorneys said Smith was a good soldier who believed he was doing what the government wanted canine handlers to do at the prison in Iraq: provide security and frighten interrogation subjects. Defense attorney Capt. Mary G. McCarthy said all that Smith's dog did to prisoners was bark at them.
Master Sgt. Shannon Wilson, who directly supervised Smith at the kennels in Fort Riley, Kan., where Smith's unit is based, testified that Smith was an exceptional soldier whose infractions didn't amount to abuse.
"Anything short of being bit is a psychological deterrent," Wilson said.
The defense also argued that Abu Ghraib was a dangerous, chaotic place where policies were so murky that even the colonel who supervised interrogations testified he was confused.
The jury deliberated for about 18 hours over three days. The trial began March 13.
Smith was found guilty of maltreating three prisoners, conspiring with another dog handler in a contest to make detainees soil themselves, dereliction of duty, assault and an indecent act. The assault charge was dismissed.
The indecency conviction was for Smith directing his dog to lick peanut butter off the genitals of a male soldier and the breasts of a female soldier.
Smith expressed remorse for that action. "It was foolish, stupid and juvenile. There is nothing I could do to take it back. If I could, I would," Smith said.
The trial of the other dog handler, Sgt. Santos A. Cardona, 31, of Fullerton, Calif., is set for May 22.
Smith was acquitted of maltreating and assaulting two other detainees — one of whom was bitten hard on both thighs by Cardona's dog, according to testimony — and of conspiring with prison guards to unlawfully harass detainees.
Nine other soldiers have been convicted of abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, in many cases by forcing them to assume painful positions and humiliate themselves sexually while being photographed. Former Cpl. Charles Graner Jr. received the longest sentence — 10 years in prison. Lynndie England, a 23-year-old reservist photographed giving a thumbs-up in front of naked prisoners, is serving three years behind bars.
The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights First, which had observers at the trial, said the verdict sends "a powerful message that abusive interrogation techniques using unmuzzled dogs to terrify detainees is strictly prohibited."
But attorney Avi Cover said in a statement, "There have been prosecutions going down the chain of the command but not going up. It's not enough to prosecute the people who were following orders."