FORT HOOD, Texas -- An Army judge yesterday abruptly ended the court-martial of Private First Class Lynndie R. England, the soldier who appeared in iconic photographs of inmate abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, saying that her guilty plea was not believable.
The surprise mistrial in the high-profile prosecution does not mean the reservist will go free. The Army can charge England, 22, again and even add additional counts.
But the judge's rejection of her guilty plea -- together with evidence at her sentencing hearing that senior Army commanders tolerated chaotic, dangerous, and illegal conditions at the notorious prison outside Baghdad -- could undermine the Pentagon's assertion that the Abu Ghraib scandal was solely the fault of a small clique of enlisted soldiers.
Under military law, the judge could not accept England's plea unless he was convinced she knew she was committing an illegal act. Her lawyers had long maintained she was following orders but after the plea deal, England said Monday that she knew her actions were wrong.
Since her hearing began this week, the judge, Colonel James L. Pohl, had expressed skepticism about her admission of guilt. His decision to stop the hearing followed testimony yesterday morning from a former Abu Ghraib prison guard, Private Charles A. Graner Jr. A military jury in January rejected Graner's argument that he had been following orders and convicted him of abuse at the prison; he is now serving a 10-year sentence for his role in the scandal.
Graner, who in civilian life worked as corrections officer, said that the widely circulated photo of England holding a naked prisoner on a leash was not abuse, but rather a standard method guards use to control unruly prisoners.
One of the charges against England was that she ''did conspire" with Graner to mistreat prisoners. If Graner and England felt that use of the leash was proper, the judge concluded, there was no crime.
''There is no finding of guilt that can be accepted any longer," Pohl said.
England was an office clerk when the Army assigned her to Abu Ghraib. She told the judge earlier this week that she followed Graner's direction in the prison ''because he was an MP [military police], he had the corrections officer background. He was older than me."
Neal A. Puckett, a civilian attorney who represents Brigadier General Janis L. Karpinski, who ran US detention facilities in Iraq, said that putting Graner on the stand probably destroyed the plea agreement. Inasmuch as military judges must ensure that a guilty plea is legitimate, Puckett said producing any evidence inconsistent with guilt can scuttle a deal.
''If you plead guilty, it's all the way -- you can't show you're not guilty," Puckett said. ''Her deal is gone. It can only be worse for her."
England became the public face of the prisoner abuse scandal because she was photographed pointing and laughing at naked Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib's cellblock One-Alpha. She originally faced charges that could have sent her to jail for 38 years. Under her plea deal, she admitted guilt to seven charges in return for a sharply reduced prison term.
But from the start, Pohl raised doubts about England's culpability.
The judge initially expressed concern Monday when England told him she was following the direction of higher-ranking soldiers when she posed for the pictures. Pohl told her that this statement could jeopardize her guilty plea. England then conferred with her lawyers and changed her explanation, saying she knew at the time that what she did was wrong.
Pohl's doubts emerged again Tuesday, when a school system counselor from Mineral County, W.Va., where England grew up, testified that she was always a ''compliant personality" who preferred to ''listen to authority figures."
The judge interrupted to comment, ''You're creating some inference that she had trouble knowing right from wrong."
Fort Hood's commander, Lieutenant General Thomas F. Metz, will decide whether England should be charged again. ''He could order another general court-martial. He could call for less stringent punishment. He could even drop the charges," said Captain Cullen Sheppard, a lawyer in Fort Hood's judge advocate general's corps.