FORT HOOD, Texas -- Barring any last-minute plea bargain, an Army reservist pictured in some of the notorious photographs of Iraqi inmates being sexually humiliated at the Abu Ghraib prison will today become the first soldier tried in the scandal.
Spc. Charles Graner, 36, is accused of being the ringleader of the abuse. He could get up to 24 1/2 years in a military prison on charges that include conspiracy, assault and committing indecent acts.
The prison guard from Uniontown, Pa., is accused of jumping on detainees, stomping on their hands and feet, and punching one man in the temple hard enough to knock him out.
In one of the photos that blew the scandal wide open, Graner is shown giving a thumbs-up behind a pile of naked Iraqi inmates. Another photo shows him cocking his fist as if to punch a hooded detainee.
Prosecutors dropped obstruction of justice and adultery charges against Graner on the eve of the trial. The adultery charge alleged that he had sexual relations outside marriage with another soldier accused in the Abu Ghraib scandal, Pfc. Lynndie England.
Capt. Steven Neill, a spokesman for the prosecution, would not say why the charges were dropped. Guy Womack, Graner's attorney, said he thinks the charges were dropped because his client was wrongly accused of those counts.
Womack has said he plans to argue Graner was ordered by higher-ranking soldiers and intelligence agents to soften up the detainees for interrogators, and had no choice but to obey.
Graner's trial will be an important first test of that argument, but experts have cautioned the theory may have trouble gaining traction with a jury of soldiers.
Jeffrey Addicott, a retired Army lawyer not connected with the case, said Womack will first have to provide proof that Graner received such orders. And then he will have to persuade jurors that Graner believed those orders were lawful.
"Even if they did find that they were ordered to do it, the panel is going to say, 'That's an illegal order and a reasonable soldier would not have followed it,"' said Addicott, now a law professor in San Antonio.
Addicott said the reasonable-soldier standard could be especially difficult in this case, because it was a member of Graner's unit who tipped off investigators about how prisoners were treated at Abu Ghraib.
"A soldier said, 'Hey, this ain't right' and blew the whistle on them," he said. "If I was defending (Graner), I'd plead guilty and get any type of deal that I could."
Three other soldiers from the 372nd Military Police Company have already pleaded guilty and received sentences ranging from demotion to eight years in prison. Three more soldiers from the unit are also awaiting trial at Fort Hood.
Among them is England, who in October gave birth to a child who Army prosecutors say was the result of a relationship with Graner. Her trial date has not been set.
Lawyers for the other Abu Ghraib defendants will be closely watching Graner's trial.
"If Graner is successful in his defense, then we've been assured that the prosecution will take an entirely different, enlightened position pertaining to our case," said attorney Paul Bergrin of Newark, N.J., whose client Sgt. Javal Davis is scheduled for trial in February.
Should Graner be convicted, Bergrin said he may pursue a plea bargain for Davis.