Manning Plea Sets Up Court Martial Strategy

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Pleading guilty to about half of the 22 charges against him in military court yesterday, Army private Bradley Manning delivered a dramatic, personal account of his moral justifications for the largest leak of classified documents in U.S. history.

Denying the most serious charges against him, such as “aiding the enemy,” Manning maintained that he did not intend to harm U.S. national security, but believed the leak could expose abuses and spark a debate about U.S. foreign and military policy.

Manning’s statement clarified the strategy his defense will employ when his formal court martial begins this summer. Rather than denying that Manning committed the acts, the defense will apparently argue that, because of the nature of the material leaked and Manning’s motivations, they do not rise to the level of criminality laid out in the charges against him. “Aiding the enemy” carries a potential life sentence. Manning pleaded not guilty to that and nine other charges yesterday, but offered a partial guilty plea on ten lesser charges, such as “misusing classified data.”

The offer is known as a “bareback plea”—nothing has been offered by the government or prosecution in exchange for the admission of guilt, and Manning waives his right to later revisit those charges on appeal. According to military law expert Gary Solis, such offers are exceptionally unusual. But, Solis noted, Manning’s defense “has been taking an unusual tack from the beginning.”

“I think the defense tactic is to not go through an entire contested trial, but instead argue for a lesser sentence based on the accused’s willingness to accept responsibility for some of the crimes,” Solis said Friday.

By unilaterally accepting responsibility now, Manning’s team can leapfrog over some of the legal weeds that would take up the court’s time establishing what exactly Manning did, and jump right to the moral arguments about why what he did was justified.

Solis says that while it’s unusual to employ such a strategy before a court martial has even begun, it’s a “time honored” approach for defense attorneys to start laying the groundwork for the sentencing phase when it looks like the law is not on their side.

Even if Manning is found guilty of the charges on their merits, the judge in the case, Army Colonel Denise Lind, has enormous flexibility in deciding what kind of sentence to impose.  Solis points out that while a military judge has a table of maximum punishments for any given offense, there are no minimums. “So the judge could sentence him to minimal confinement, or no confinement. It’s within her prerogative to fashion the sentence that she thinks is appropriate to this case.”

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