FORT MEADE, Md. (CN) - The warrant officer who signed off on Pfc. Bradley Manning's suicide watch orders at a Marine Corps prison in Quantico, Va., in apparent defiance of brig regulations, struggled to defend those calls Thursday during vigorous cross-examination.
The testimony could prove key to determining whether Manning will get a reduced sentence or dismissal of all charges in the biggest intelligence leak in U.S. history.
Manning, who is accused of exposing hundreds of thousands of government files, could face a life sentence if he is convicted of "aiding the enemy."
He faces 21 other charges, including several specifications of the Espionage Act, exceeding authorized access, theft, and conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline in the armed forces.
Though he originally faced federal violations under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the military judge, Col. Denise Lind, has given him leave to plead guilty to lighter charges under military law, a military spokesman said.
Eight of these charges, the spokesman said, carry 2-year instead of 10-year maximum terms. He said the court has not formally accepted the plea, which can be withdrawn at any time.
For more than a week, Manning's lead attorney, David Coombs, has been building a case that his client was subjected to "unlawful pretrial punishment" at Quantico, where he spent 9 months in maximum confinement and prevention-of-injury watch.
Manning spent more than 23 hours a day isolated in a windowless 6-by-8-foot cell, led out for as little as 20 minutes on "sunshine call," for which he was shackled at the arms and legs.
If Judge Lind agrees these measures were unnecessary, she could dismiss charges against him, or reduce his sentence if he is convicted.
Chief Warrant Officer-4 James Averhart, the brig OIC, or Officer in Charge, put Manning on suicide risk, or SR, three times, despite the protests of his prison psychologist, Capt. William Hocter. Suicide watch forced Manning to strip naked, put on a rough smock and sleep on a special mattress and a blanket.
The tear-proof materials induced rashes, Manning said.
On Wednesday, the chief of corrections for the Marines, CW5 Abel Galaviz, said placing Manning on this status broke regulations established by the Secretary of the Navy, known as the SecNav instructions.
The instructions mandate: "When prisoners are no longer considered to be suicide risks by a medical officer, they shall be returned to appropriate quarters."
Averhart, who ordered the suicide watch, parsed the word "shall" to argue that he had not broken the rule.
He said he defined "shall" as "at a particular time to be determined."
Coombs asked him a series of questions trying to pin down time limits on "shall," but Averhart refused to define them.
In one instance, Averhart called for suicide watch shortly after having a private conversation with Manning, who he said had been "disrespectful" to him.
Manning said he told Averhart that he had to follow brig regulations and that "everyone has a boss they have to answer to," according to a defense motion.
Averhart asserted to have no detailed memory of the encounter, but remembered that Manning asked why he was yelling at him.
He said he replied that was his natural voice, which is a deep, though usually gentle, baritone.
During cross-examination, the defense made headway in the argument that Quantico officials would not have changed Manning's status because of pressure from the chain of command.
Then-Maj. Gen. George Flynn, now a three-star general, placed the order not to remove Manning from his highly restrictive status, according to a defense brief.
Averhart denied being given direct orders from the brig's director, Col. Daniel Choike, to write up weekly reports for Flynn, but he said that he knew his actions were being closely watched.
"It would be naïve to sit here and say that people above were not paying attention," Averhart said.
During cross-examination, Coombs asked, "You knew that Lt. Gen. Flynn knew what was going on?"
"Sure, sir," Averhart replied.
Brig officials typically base their decisions on a database known as the Corrections Management Information System, or CORMIS, in assigning maximum or lower custody.
Manning scored five on this system, far lower than the 12 needed for maximum confinement.
He started filing complaints contesting his status in early 2011.
In one reply brief, Manning wrote, "Despite my low score, the [Duty Brig Supervisor] overrode the score, and indicated that he considered my previous classification in Kuwait as the primary factor in his decision."
Shortly after his arrest in May 2010, Manning was transferred to Kuwait, where he became suicidal.
His mental health improved with medical care upon his arrival at Quantico.
After receiving Manning's complaint, Averhart asked his lawyer to draft a response with "a reasoning for max and POI."
"Why 'a reasoning' and not 'the reasoning'?" Coombs asked.
"I have no idea," Averhart said.
On the witness stand, the reasoning he gave included national security concerns, the potential length of Manning's sentence and potential for abuse from other inmates.
Coombs chipped away at these during cross-examination.
The first two reasons, he said, come into play only when a detainee is a flight risk, and Manning never tried to escape.
Averhart contended that Manning needed to be protected from "patriotic" inmates.
"They were very patriotic," he said. "They know why Pfc. Manning was there."
In the afternoon, he added, "I'm sure that Pfc. Manning is patriotic, as well."
Averhart agreed that he could have used less restrictive "protective" confinement if he felt he needed to protect Manning from other inmates.
Testimony was to continue today (Friday) with CW2 Denise Barnes, who succeeded Averhart in assuming command of the brig.
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