FORT HOOD, Texas - Military prosecutors pared down their case against the alleged ringleader in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal yesterday, dropping four counts against Spc. Charles A. Graner Jr. one day before a jury is scheduled to be seated in his closely watched case.
Graner, a former prison guard from Uniontown, Pa., and the first of seven low-ranking Army Reserve soldiers charged in the scandal to face a full military trial, still faces 10 charges that could bring a punishment of more than 17 years in prison.
But his attorney said the trial would show that photographed abuses at the Iraqi prison, which caused an international uproar last year, were the result of lawful orders. Houston attorney Guy Womack portrayed Graner - who was pictured early on as the tough instigator of the sexually charged abuses - as a steady, thoughtful soldier who should be cleared.
"The photos show him doing what he was ordered to do," Womack said. "Every pilot that ever had to drop a bomb regrets that he had to drop a bomb. It doesn't mean you don't obey an order."
Three members of Graner's unit, the Western Maryland-based 372nd Military Police Company, have pleaded guilty, and three others are awaiting trial. But the group, initially described by administration officials as a singular band of rogue soldiers, has in some ways already faded to a footnote in a wider scandal.
Questions about the prison scandal dominated yesterday's Senate confirmation hearings for Alberto Gonzales to become the next U.S. attorney general.
Government records made public in recent weeks by the American Civil Liberties Union have documented widespread abuses of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"The trial of Charles Graner is a first step toward accountability, but no one should confuse it with the end of the process," Reed Brody, special counsel at Human Rights Watch, said yesterday. "The issue isn't only who was the local ringleader, but whether his superiors led him to believe he had permission to engage in such atrocities."
Graner's trial is expected to last about a week.
Charges put aside
At a pretrial hearing yesterday, prosecutors dropped two assault charges, as well as one count of obstruction of justice and one count of adultery. Capt. Steven C. Neill, a spokesman for the prosecuting team, said charges at this stage generally are dropped only for "evidentiary or strategic" reasons; he did not elaborate.
Graner, 36, had faced the obstruction of justice count for allegedly telling one of his fellow accused soldiers, Spc. Jeremy C. Sivits that, "You didn't see [explitive]," on the night when some of the worst abuses occurred.
But Sivits testified later that it was another soldier, Staff Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick, who made that statement.
Sivits and Frederick both have pleaded guilty to related charges, along with Spc. Megan Ambuhl. All three are expected to testify at Graner's trial.
The adultery charge against Graner had stemmed from his wartime romance with Pfc. Lynndie R. England, who still faces a court-martial in the scandal. But both were divorced at the time of the affair.
England, 22, gave birth to a son last fall, and her family and attorneys have said Graner is the father.
Judge rejects motions
Womack, the defense lawyer, also had sought yesterday to get additional charges against Graner dropped after discovering that some government lawyers had obtained some copies of e-mails between him and his client that should have been considered privileged attorney-client communications.
Prosecutors said they never read or looked at the e-mails, and military judge Col. James Pohl rejected Womack's motion.
Pohl also rejected defense efforts to introduce as evidence an evaluation by one of Graner's superiors at Abu Ghraib, who said in the report that Graner "worked closely with [military intelligence] on detainee behavioral management on anti-coalition detainees." At a hearing last month, Pohl refused to allow testimony from several high-ranking officers at the prison.
Those rulings could complicate defense efforts to prove their claim that the abuses were led or directed by senior officers and military intelligence personnel.
They also could leave unsatisfied some of the Bush administration's most persistent critics, including Vermont Democrat Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, who said at yesterday's Senate hearings for the attorney general's appointment that the Abu Ghraib scandal had left "lingering questions and unresolved accountability."
In Texas, Womack brushed off the same-day attention the scandal was receiving in Congress.
"The things that are going on in Washington ... it's interesting, and we all look at it, and say, 'Hey, there must be some connection,'" between administration policies and the Abu Ghraib abuses.
But, he said, "What's important in this case are the orders Specialist Graner received from his direct superiors."