FT. MEADE, Md. (CN) - A forensic psychologist at the now-defunct Marine Corp prison at Quantico, Va. testified Wednesday that its staff kept alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning in needlessly harsh conditions in a misguided effort to protect him.
Before the case can go to military trial, prosecutors must answer for Manning's nearly 9-month stay at Quantico, from July 29, 2010, to April 19, 2011.
If the military judge, Col. Denise Lind, finds that his treatment rose to "unlawful pretrial punishment," she could dismiss the charges, or reduce his sentence if he is convicted.
Manning has been jailed for more than 900 days since he was arrested in May 2010, accused of the largest intelligence disclosure in U.S. history.
He is accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables, incident reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, and footage of a Baghdad airstrike that killed about 12 people, including two Reuters reporters.
Shortly after his arrest, authorities sent Manning to a military base in Kuwait, where guards said that he made nooses and gathered metal objects to commit suicide.
They transferred him to a Marine Corp brig in Quantico, Va., which had been shaken by the suicide of another detainee, Capt. Michael Webb.
The first Quantico psychologist to take the stand, Capt. William Hocter, said he first recommended placing Manning on prevention of injury, or POI, watch to avoid a repeat of that tragedy.
Hocter said he recommended taking Manning off POI status on Aug. 26, 2010, roughly a month after Manning arrived at the brig.
"We were patient and watched and we were satisfied that he was not a risk," Hocter said. "I wanted to allay their concerns."
A soft-faced man with thick, black-framed glasses, Hector spoke with the soothing voice of a seasoned therapist.
He has practiced for more than 20 years, spending about a quarter of that time serving military and civilian prisons from San Diego to Quantico to Guantanamo Bay.
He said that Quantico staff stiffened Manning's restrictions instead of relaxing them, as he recommended.
Manning spent most of his 9-month stay in maximum security, denied any interaction with other prisoners and given as little as 20 minutes of sunshine a day.
While prosecutors deny that these conditions constitute solitary confinement, Hocter said, "We are by nature social creatures. We have a need to be around other people."
He said Manning's resilience to the strict supervision surprised him.
"He actually held up better than expected," Hocter said.
"I would like to say that it was my excellent medical care," he joked later. "I think he just decided that he was going to be strong."
Hocter said that most correctional facilities deferred to his expertise, but Quantico denied his repeated requests to take Manning off the restrictive status.
"It almost became comical," he said.
Earlier Wednesday, Col. Robert Oltman, the security battalion commander at Quantico, testified that Hocter made a similar recommendation for Webb before the captain committed suicide.
"The guidance that [Hocter] gave with regards to Webb was wrong," Oltman said, adding later, "I was going to be very cautious of the opinions that he gave."
When Manning's lead attorney, David Coombs, relayed Oltman's statement, Hocter replied that it was the first time he heard that criticism.
"No, I was never told that," Hocter said. "If they felt that way, they should have found someone else for the job. ... Why would you want to work in a place if you weren't trusted?"
Hocter said he had a heated argument with Oltman over Manning's status on Jan. 13, 2011.
As reproduced in a defense motion, Oltman told Hocter, ""Nothing is going to happen to Pfc. Manning on my watch. Nothing's going to change. He won't be able to hurt himself and he won't be able to get away, and our way of making sure of this is that he will remain on this status indefinitely."
Hocter said he replied, "Sir, I am concerned because if you're going to do that, maybe you want to call it something else, because it's not based on anything from behavioral health."
The first two Quantico staffers to testify sought to justify Manning's confinement by citing odd behavior, such as dancing in his prison cell and playing peek-a-boo with guards.
Hocter giggled at that and craned his neck to look at Manning.
"So what?" the psychiatrist said. "He's sitting in his cell all day he's got nothing left to do."
He added later: "You had to know Manning. He had his own personality. A bit of a free spirit. He certainly wasn't a Marine."
Manning was an Army intelligence specialist before he was demoted to private first class. The military says it sent him to Quantico because of its proximity to where he would stand trial.
Another time, his jailers revoked Manning's TV privileges after Fox News mistakenly reported on Twitter that he had died.
One prosecutor, Capt. Joe Morrow, asked during cross-examination whether Hocter thought that taking away TV would cause Manning stress.
"I was worried that finding out that he was dead might be a stressor," Hocter replied, to laughter in the court.
Morrow, a physically imposing prosecutor standing well over 6 feet tall, sounded a serious note.
"Suicides, in your words, could be called an epidemic in the military?" he asked.
"Correct," Hocter said.
Morrow said the psychologist observed that Quantico staff "were not malicious" toward Manning.
"No," he agreed.
"They were, in their minds, trying to do the right thing," Morrow continued.
Agreeing that was true, Hocter said later, "I did not see evidence of maliciousness."
On redirect, Coombs said that the prison's concern for safety could only go so far, or every prisoner could be kept on suicide watch.
"We could, but God forbid!" Hocter said.
After Hocter stepped down, he shook hands with Manning, his lawyer and his prosecutor.
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