- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The first court-martial arising from the abuse of Iraqi prisoners will probably be a quick affair, say lawyers with expertise in military trials.

Spc. Jeremy C. Sivits of Hyndman, Pa., will go before a court-martial in Baghdad on May 19. He was a junior soldier at Abu Ghraib prison, and apparently took some of the photos of the abuse.

He is charged with conspiracy to mistreat detainees, dereliction of duty for failing to protect prisoners and maltreatment of detainees.

Neal Sonnett, a Miami defense lawyer who has represented civilian and military clients, said the speed with which the trial was scheduled and the decision to try a relatively low-level defendant first suggest a plea bargain is in the works. Military prosecutors might be eager for that outcome, Mr. Sonnett said.

“If he pleads guilty, then there’s a feather in the cap of the prosecution quickly,” Mr. Sonnett said.

The conditions of Spc. Sivits’ trial “suggest to me this is a cooperating witness who could … give evidence against others more culpable,” said Michael Noone, a law professor at Catholic University of America and former Air Force judge.

Like defendants charged with crimes in civilian court, Spc. Sivits has the right to a lawyer, a jury trial and to see and question the evidence against him.

The military has promised the trial will be open to the press, just as adult criminal trials in civilian courts traditionally are.

Unlike a civilian court, however, a military jury is not limited to 12 members and all do not have to agree. Conviction and sentence require only a two-thirds vote. Also unlike a conventional trial, a court-martial is overseen beginning to end by a senior officer, known as convening authority.

Spc. Sivits could be tried by three or more officers and enlisted personnel or, if he chooses, by a judge alone.

Courts-martial don’t always take place in a courtroom and often occur overseas. Spc. Sivits’ will be held in the Baghdad Convention Center. Some Vietnam-era trials were held in makeshift quarters within earshot of gunfire.

Spc. Sivits will be tried before what the Army calls a special court-martial, a proceeding without direct parallel in the civilian world but similar in some ways to a misdemeanor trial. Conviction before a special court-martial carries a maximum of one year in prison.

Others charged in the Abu Ghraib affair will probably face a general court-martial, which can yield more severe punishment. Seven soldiers face charges.

Spc. Sivits’ father, Daniel Sivits, said last month his son “was told to take a picture, and he did what he was told.” If Spc. Sivits should plead not guilty and go forward with a trial, his attorneys could invoke a just-following-orders defense.

In addition to a prison term, Spc. Sivits’ punishment could include a reduction in rank to private, forfeiture of two-thirds of his pay for a year, a fine or a bad-conduct discharge.

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