Soldier defers plea in WikiLeaks case

  • Thu Feb 23rd, 2012 9:48pm
  • News

Associated Press

FORT MEADE, Md. — An Army private declined to enter a plea Thursday to charges he engineered the biggest leak of classified information in U.S. history.

Pfc. Bradley Manning also deferred a choice of whether to be tried by a military jury or judge alone.

Military judge Col. Denise Lind presided over the 50-minute hearing at Fort Meade near Baltimore. She didn’t set a trial date but scheduled another court session for March 15-16.

Defense attorney David Coombs proposed a trial date sometime in April. He said the government’s proposed calendar could push the start of the trial to Aug. 3, a date that Coombs said could jeopardize his client’s right to a speedy trial.

Manning has been in pretrial confinement since May 2010. He faces 22 counts, including aiding the enemy. That charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. The others carry a combined maximum of more than 150 years.

The native of Crescent, Okla., allegedly gave the anti-secrecy website more than 700,000 documents and video clips. Defense lawyers said Manning, 24, was emotionally troubled and shouldn’t have had access to classified material nor have been sent to Iraq.

A court-martial defendant can defer entering a plea until the start of the trial and defer choosing a judge or jury until shortly before the trial date. Doing so could buy the defense more time to investigate the background of prospective jurors or negotiate a deal, said Eugene Fidell, a former Coast Guard judge advocate who teaches law at Yale.

The hearing — officially the start of Manning’s court martial — was more formal than his December preliminary hearing in the same courtroom. The defendant, his military lawyers and the prosecution lawyers all appeared in military dress uniform by agreement, as opposed to the camouflage field uniforms they all wore in December.

Manning stood when the judge asked him for his plea, then let Coombs answer that he would not be entering one.

The only outburst was as the judge adjourned the hearing. “Judge, isn’t a soldier required to report a war crime?” protester David Eberhardt of Baltimore said loudly. She didn’t respond.

A member of the anti-war group Code Pink, Eberhardt, 70, was referring to Manning’s alleged leaking of a video showing the 2007 Apache helicopter attack in Iraq that killed a Reuters news photographer and his driver. The government said it was accidental.

At the a preliminary hearing in December, military prosecutors produced evidence that Manning downloaded and electronically transferred to WikiLeaks nearly half a million sensitive battlefield reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables, and the video from the Army helicopter, which WikiLeaks dubbed “Collateral Murder.”