Update: Door Left Open for Deal in Manning Case
Follow @ArunRathFebruary 23, 2012, 10:35 am ET
FRONTLINE’s Arun Rath is on the scene at Fort Meade and will be providing updates throughout the day.
Prosecutors may have made a little-noticed strategic move when they decided to take the death penalty off the table earlier this month in the case against WikiLeaks suspect Bradley Manning.
Under military law, a service member is not permitted to plead guilty to a capital offense. In all such cases, the defendant must face a court-martial.
According to an expert in military law at Fort Meade who is not involved in the Manning case, the prosecution formally declined to categorize the charge of “aiding the enemy” as a capital offense, when Manning’s charges were officially referred on Feb. 3. With that decision, the door has been left wide open for a plea deal.
Manning’s attorney has previously hinted that prosecutors are interested in a deal. During Manning’s pre-trial Article 32 hearing, his defense attorney David Coombs suggested the Justice Department was interested in a plea deal in order to “go after Julian Assange,” referring to the WikiLeaks founder.
Any plea deal would have to be initiated by the defense team. But now that Manning has deferred his plea decision, the latest moves by both sides mean all options remain on the table until the court-martial begins sometime this summer.
Bradley Manning deferred entering a plea this afternoon; he also deferred his decision on whether or not to face a military judge alone or a panel of fellow servicemembers at his trial. Manning can wait until the day of the trial to enter a plea, and he can decide which trial he’d prefer up to five days ahead of time.
The next hearings are scheduled for March 15 and 16. The counsel and the judge are in discussions regarding the trial schedule, which will be announced within the next few weeks.
The media caravan entered the Fort Meade gate around 11:45, before any protesters were visible. As the reporters assembled in the media center — the bulk of us will watch the live closed circuit feed in here while a smaller pool of 8 reporters sit inside the courtroom — we were informed that because of the problems of re-booting the wireless, it would remain up during the live feed from the courtroom. We have been asked however to respect the “honor system” — no social media during court proceedings.
During the arraignment today, Manning will get to choose the type of court that will try him for the court-martial: He could choose to face a military judge alone, who would render both verdict and sentence. He could also opt to face a panel of fellow service members, with an additional option to stipulate that one-third of the panel be enlisted soldiers. He will be given the opportunity to enter a plea, although the plea can be deferred to a later date.
The session today will end with a scheduling conference that will set the dates for additional hearings and the ultimate trial; however the schedule may not be released for several weeks.
Bradley Manning, the Army private accused of leaking classified material to WikiLeaks, faces arraignment in a military courtroom at Fort Meade today. He has been transferred to the Maryland military base from Fort Leavenworth, in Kansas, for the start of his official trial proceedings.
At 1 pm EST Manning will appear in court where a judge will read his charges, and he will enter his plea. Under military law, soldiers may not plead guilty to capital offenses, crimes that may be punishable by death. The capital offense of aiding the enemy is among Manning’s charges, but military prosecutors have already said they will not seek the death penalty in this case.
An arraignment is usually a straightforward procedural matter. Observers expect Manning’s lawyers to use today’s proceedings as an opportunity to raise objections relating to the length and nature of Manning’s confinement, which some allege have been abusive and in violation of military legal requirements.
Manning’s supporters are scheduled to start a “support vigil” outside the Ft. Meade gate half an hour before the court proceedings today. Earlier this month, Manning’s supporters nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
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