Soldier Found Guilty in Abu Ghraib Abuse Case
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TERENCE SMITH: Army Reserve Spc. Charles Graner arrived smiling at the judicial center in Fort Hood, Texas, this morning for the final arguments in his court-martial. Graner is the ringleader of the soldiers who allegedly tortured and abused Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison in November 2003.
He was the first of seven accused to go to court-martial. The others reached plea agreements. Besides assault, Graner was convicted of indecent acts, such as stacking naked detainees in a human pyramid while others took photos. Graner is also shown here giving a “thumbs up” next to the body of a dead Iraqi man.
The court-martial took a day less than expected, largely because Graner chose not to testify. In his defense, his lawyer contended Graner was following orders from intelligence agents to use physical violence to prepare detainees for questioning. The prosecution charged he was abusing detainees for sport. Spc. Graner faces up to seventeen and a half years in military prison.
TERENCE SMITH: For more on the court-martial, we turn to Kate Zernike, who has been covering the proceedings for the New York Times.
Kate, welcome. Thank you for joining us.
Can you tell us what the seen was in the courtroom just a few minutes ago when the verdict was announced?
KATE ZERNIKE: They came in quite quickly, and I think people — the jury had come in about an hour ago to ask a question, and I think people suddenly had the rush that the realization and the sort of rush that once the jury answered their question, they were ready to deliver a verdict.
So I think it was read very quickly. There was a lot of – obviously, a lot of tension in the courtroom and then it was over fairly quickly. The charges were read, and it was guilty on all counts except for one, which was reduced from assault to battery.
TERENCE SMITH: And what was Spc. Graner, what was his reaction?
KATE ZERNIKE: He just, you know, with his lawyers, just sort of sat with them. He didn’t seem to have this visible reaction.
TERENCE SMITH: I just wonder how you reconcile that with his sort of upbeat appearance earlier in the trial, and even as recently as this morning.
KATE ZERNIKE: Yeah, I mean, when this trial started, when opening arguments started earlier in the week, he was in the cafeteria joking with reporters, he was taking copies of newspapers that were lying around with stories about him and about the trial and pointing them out to reporters and really joking and saying he felt fine, saying he expected to testify. And it was very clear by yesterday morning that the defense was not going as well as he expected.
TERENCE SMITH: And in fact the decision was made, I guess, at the end of the defense presentation that he would not testify as, I guess you thought he would before. Was there an explanation of that?
KATE ZERNIKE: No, but I think from other military lawyers I’ve spoken to who know something about the case who have talked to the prosecution and the defense, they felt that the prosecution had a number of rebuttal witnesses that they planned to call, including Spc. Graner’s supervisor from a prison in Pennsylvania where he had been accused of abusing prisoners in a civil suit. They also had a number of e-mails from him in which he spoke about abusing e-mails in somewhat of a — not a gleeful but certainly a blithe tone, the way you or I might talk about going out to do groceries. That I think could have been very damaging to him; they could have brought that up if he said anything in his testimony.
TERENCE SMITH: Were there any other reactions in the court when the verdict was read, either from, you know, associates, family or, for that matter, the military jury itself?
KATE ZERNIKE: No, the military jury has sat pretty expressionless throughout the whole thing. They listened extremely attentively. They are all in dress uniforms, sort of an impressive crowd. But they were quite stoic about the whole thing, and appeared very businesslike, very professional. Spc. Graner’s parents were in the courtroom and obviously looked shaken by the whole thing.
TERENCE SMITH: What was the basic argument that the prosecution made during the trial?
KATE ZERNIKE: Well, the big question here has been: Was this following orders or was this just a group of seven soldiers on the night shift who were having a bit of fun? And the prosecution argued that this was really just about having fun; that this was something that Graner had done over and over and over again. He showed no remorse for it.
In fact he seemed to be having a lot of fun doing it. And every time the defense would say, well, he was following orders, the prosecution would get up to the defense witnesses and say, but was there an order to stack these prisoners naked in a pyramid? Was there an order to have them masturbate? Was there an order to have them simulate oral sex? And every witness without exception had to say no, there was no order to do that, to do the things we’ve all seen in those photographs.
TERENCE SMITH: So none of the defense witnesses backed him up on that that?
KATE ZERNIKE: No. There was one – you know, there was one witness only who said that — who was a prison expert — sorry, a corrections expert who said that it was possible that the pyramid had been built to prevent these detainees from asphyxiation. But he hadn’t been there; he had no firsthand knowledge of the case. Anyone who was there that night had to admit that they were not following orders.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. What happens now? Often sentencing follows right along after a verdict in a military –
KATE ZERNIKE: Right. The jury — it’s about 5 o’clock here in Texas and the jury has said — the judge gave the jury the option of starting their deliberations on sentencing – I’m sorry, the sentencing phase tonight or tomorrow. We’ll hear from — we expect to hear from Graner, we expect him to make a statement and some other defense witnesses.
We expect to hear from the prosecution side from two members of Graner’s company, which is based in Maryland who will say he has really damaged the morale of the company. So both the prosecution and the defense will offer some witnesses. And then the jury will go back out with more instructions from the judge to consider his sentence. With this one count that’s now battery instead of assault, the maximum is now fifteen years instead of seventeen and a half.
TERENCE SMITH: And that sentence then presumably would come when, tonight?
KATE ZERNIKE: That sentence would start tonight. Army officials have told us that he would leave here tonight in cuffs and be taken to the Bell County Jail, which is in nearby Belton, Texas.
TERENCE SMITH: One other thing about the defense.
KATE ZERNIKE: Sorry –
TERENCE SMITH: You wrote yesterday that several of the defense witnesses ended up bolstering the prosecution’s case at the end of their testimony. Explain that. How did that work?
KATE ZERNIKE: Well, in one case, for instance, they called someone who had been a superior officer to Graner and they had said, well, didn’t he get this report where you said that military intelligence or the interrogators say you were doing a good job running the prison? And indeed the report did say that, but the report had been written one night when they found that Graner admitted that he had bashed a detainee’s head into a wall and caused the detainee to have these four wounds on his head; he was bleeding profusely when the superior officers got there.
So the while the first line of the report was indeed positive and said he was doing a good job, the rest of the report said you know, you have discipline problems; we need you to follow orders.
You can’t – you know, you’re just – you’re not living up to our standards. So in each case you would have this well, isn’t it true that… and the prosecution would just come back again and say that there were no orders to do this. And he was a continuing discipline problem and again there was repeated bad behavior.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Kate Zernike of the New York Times, thanks so much for filling us in.
KATE ZERNIKE: Sure.