Defense rests in Manning trial

The defense rested its case Wednesday after presenting little evidence in a pretrial hearing to counter charges that Pfc. Bradley Manning illegally downloaded and leaked hundreds of thousands of sensitive government documents to the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks.

Indeed, defense attorney David E. Coombs this week appeared at one point to have all but conceded the main point of the prosecution’s case: “The government has told you a lot of stuff about how things happened,” he said Tuesday. “We’re telling you why things happened. That’s also important.”

But, legal experts said, an absence of exculpatory evidence now could also mean that Manning’s defense team is reserving its strongest argument for an eventual court-martial of the soldier, legal experts said.

“They’re keeping their powder dry,” said Michael J. Navarre, a military law expert and former lieutenant commander in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps. “Why preview your case in a proceeding you’re probably not going to win anyway?”

The government lawyers’ burden of proof to proceed to trial is quite low, Navarre said. Given the evidence presented, the pressing of at least one charge is practically “a foregone conclusion,” he said.

On Wednesday, Coombs called two witnesses, and both covered ground that had been discussed earlier in the hearing that began Friday at Fort Meade. One, Sgt. Daniel Padgett, testified about one of Manning’s emotional outbursts while he was serving as an intelligence analyst at a military base in Baghdad.

Padgett was in a counseling session with Manning in December 2009, after he had arrived late for duty, when Manning “got a look in his eye that made me uncomfortable,” Padgett said. Manning flipped the table over and had to be restrained in a “full nelson” by another officer, Padgett testified.

Padgett’s account was consistent with other testimony elicited from government witnesses by Coombs, who likely was trying to establish material that could serve to soften any sentence should Manning be found guilty, Navarre said. During the hearing, Coombs has tried to portray Manning, 24, as a troubled young man whose signs of distress were repeatedly ignored by superiors.

Manning could face up to 22 charges, ranging from adding unauthorized software to a classified computer to aiding the enemy. Although the latter carries a potential death penalty, prosecutors have said they would seek nothing more than life in prison. But the actual charges he might face are up to a military commander known as a “convening authority,” who will consider the recommendation made by the pretrial hearing investigating officer.

The most likely charges to go forward are the more minor ones, such as uploading unauthorized software and wrongfully storing classified information, which carry penalties of two years per charge, Navarre said.

The defense team has tried to poke holes in some of the witnesses’ accounts, by eliciting admissions that they could not rule out that other soldiers had not had access to computers on which incriminating evidence was found. Defense lawyers also asserted that a video of an Apache helicopter firing on civilians in Iraq, which Manning is alleged to have leaked, was not classified.

Closing arguments will take place Thursday.

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