FORT HOOD, Texas - A military judge declared a mistrial yesterday in the case of Pfc. Lynndie R. England after testimony from her one-time boyfriend, the reputed ringleader of the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, raised doubts about whether the young Army reservist knew her actions at the Iraq prison were wrong.
The ruling by Col. James L. Pohl sent the case against England back to square one and stripped, at least for now, any leniency the 22-year-old single mother had been promised in a plea deal for her highly visible role in the detainee abuse scandal.
It was a sharp setback for England's lawyers, who called Pvt. Charles A. Graner Jr. as part of an effort to gain sympathy from a sentencing jury and instead watched as he undercut England's plea deal in less than 20 unapologetic minutes on the witness stand.
For Graner and England - fellow soldiers, former lovers and, now, split parents of a 7-month-old son - it also was the very public finale of a wartime romance that started when their Maryland-based unit mobilized two years ago and that became the sordid subplot of the Abu Ghraib scandal.
"This trial is going to stop today, to be picked up some other time," Pohl said yesterday as England sat at the defense table without expression.
Her case now goes back to Lt. Gen Thomas F. Metz, commander of the ground forces in Iraq when the abuses occurred, who will determine how to proceed. The case is likely to be sent back to another Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a grand jury proceeding, said Capt. C. Cullen Sheppard, a prosecution spokesman.
"I'd say this is unusual, but it happens," Sheppard said. "It's part of the process, and both sides are willing to go through the process."
England's military lawyer, Capt. Jonathan Crisp, said outside court that he expected to meet with the government lawyers as early as today to try to rebuild a plea arrangement for England but declined to comment on how likely he thought it was that another deal could be reached.
"I'm disappointed in what happened today," Crisp said.
His co-counsel, Colorado lawyer Richard Hernandez, who was trying his first case in military court, left separately yesterday and declined to comment. He was flanked by his personal legal assistants, who attempted to deflect questions and shield England from news cameras.
England's image, though, is seared in history. She and Graner were among seven members of Maryland's 372nd Military Police Company charged with humiliating and assaulting prisoners in a scandal that outraged the Arab world, embarrassed the Bush administration and led to the discovery of a much broader pattern of mistreatment at U.S. detention facilities overseas.
Graner is so far the only soldier charged in the Abu Ghraib abuses to contest the case against him at a military trial. Prosecutors portrayed him as the group's leader, and he was convicted in January and sentenced to 10 years.
England, who once faced charges that carried a penalty of more than 30 years in prison, entered a guilty plea Monday to seven charges that could bring a maximum sentence of 11 years. She expected to face considerably less time, however, under the undisclosed terms of a plea deal with military prosecutors.
The plea seemed to draw to a close the case against the young woman who had become a symbol of the worst of the abuses at Abu Ghraib after she posed, grinning and flashing a jaunty thumbs-up, in photographs of naked and hooded Iraqi detainees.
But her case took an unexpected turn early yesterday when her civilian lawyer, Hernandez, called Graner as a witness.
Graner, who is imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, had been escorted to the court building here under guard, but he walked to the witness stand this morning without shackles and without glancing at England.
England, sitting at the defense table beside Crisp, did not look up. A few minutes into Graner's testimony, England's mother - who had been in another room in the court building caring for England's infant son, Carter - also filed into the courtroom and sat in the gallery directly behind her daughter.
With Graner on the witness stand, Hernandez asked about one of the scandal's most infamous photos, showing England holding a leather leash looped around the neck of a naked prisoner on the cellblock floor.
In her guilty plea, England said she knew the leash incident was wrong and was intended only to humiliate the prisoner. She also said Graner took photos of the episode "for his own amusement."
But Graner, who has consistently maintained that he is innocent and that the abuses at the prison were directed by higher-ranking military intelligence officials, gave a different version.
In a confident, calm voice, he testified that the leash was being used as a way to extract an unruly prisoner from his cell. When he asked England to hold the leash briefly, he said, it amounted to an order from him, then a corporal, to a lower-ranking soldier - not an idle request by her then-boyfriend.