FT. HOOD, Texas — A military judge abruptly tossed out a guilty plea Wednesday and declared a mistrial in the court-martial of Pfc. Lynndie R. England, throwing in doubt the prosecution of an Army reservist notorious for her role in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.
The judge, Col. James Pohl, dismissed the jury in the sentencing phase of her case and sent the year-old matter back to a lieutenant general who would weigh a range of options, including starting over or dismissing the case.
The judge's action came after Pvt. Charles A. Graner Jr., a former guard at Abu Ghraib, testified that photographs used as evidence of abusing prisoners were taken for legitimate training purposes. In one photo, England is seen holding a naked Iraqi detainee on a leash.
Pohl scolded England's defense lawyers for presenting testimony by Graner suggesting that her actions were not illegal. He said that testimony directly contradicted England's guilty plea of Monday, in which she accepted some responsibility for how Iraqi detainees were abused and sexually humiliated in late 2003.
Looking sternly down at the 22-year-old woman from rural West Virginia, the judge said, "You can't have it both ways."
The sentencing trial began Monday with all expectations that it could be over by Wednesday. Instead, England finds herself back at square one.
Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz could start the process again with a pre-trial hearing and then another court-martial.
England left the courtroom without speaking to reporters.
But her military lawyer, Capt. Jonathan Crisp, vented his frustration.
"I'm disappointed with what happened today," Crisp said. "This is a very uncommon occurrence and something I would say everyone is unhappy with."
Military prosecutors did not comment.
Except in the case of one other defendant who allegedly had a minor role in the scandal, England's court-martial was expected to be the final chapter in a year that had undercut the Pentagon's effort to stabilize Iraq. The photos of naked, humiliated Iraqi men, some with women's underclothing draped over their heads, others stacked in cheerleader-like pyramids, were seen around the world and inflamed anger in the Middle East toward the United States.
England is seen giggling and flashing the thumbs up in many of the photos snapped during the overnight shift on Tier 1A at Abu Ghraib, the U.S. military's main prison for suspected enemy Iraqis near Baghdad.
England was one of seven members of the 372nd Military Police Company charged in the abuse scandal, along with two military intelligence officers. All but one, Graner, pleaded guilty and received sentences ranging from no prison time to 8 1/2 years.
Graner, considered the ringleader on Tier 1A, was convicted in January and given 10 years in prison.
On Monday, England pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy, four charges of mistreating detainees and one count of dereliction of duty. Two other charges against her were dropped.
"I had a choice, but I chose to do what my friends wanted me to," the 5-foot-1 soldier told the judge in admitting guilt.
The plea arrangement reduced her maximum penalty from 16 1/2 years to 11 years, but defense lawyers were hoping to win further leniency during the sentencing phase that followed her plea.
Prosecutors made an opening statement but put on no witnesses in the penalty phase. Defense lawyers had her high school psychologist testify about her learning difficulties as a child.
Then on Wednesday, the defense team called Graner to the witness stand. He not only was her superior at the prison but also fathered the child she gave birth to last fall. Graner and England have since had a falling-out.
At one point England turned to a courtroom sketch artist who was drawing Graner and said, "Don't forget the horns and goatee."
From the stand, Graner testified that he had asked England to pose for photographs holding a leash around a naked prisoner's neck because he wanted to use the photo to document how to extract an unruly prisoner from a cell.
Graner said he took three photographs in all, indicating to the jury that this was a proper procedure.
"This was going to be a planned use of force," Graner testified. "We didn't have a video camera. This was the closest way I could document it." He added, "It was to me the safest way of getting the prisoner out of the cell."
The judge then abruptly called a halt to the proceedings. Clearing the courtroom of jurors, he warned the defense lawyers that they could not put on testimony that indicated England was not guilty of any crimes.
Pohl said that if Graner was not acting illegally, England could not have conspired with him -- one of the charges against her. "You can't conspire with yourself," he said.
He told England: "You can't have it both ways. You can only plead guilty if you believe you are guilty. If you plead guilty, you can't put on evidence that you're not guilty."
Hart reported from Ft. Hood and Serrano from Washington.