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Prison brutality gets full airing in courtroom

The court-martial case against U.S. Army reservist, Specialist Charles Graner, Jr. -- the alleged ringleader of the abuses in Abu Ghraib -- features gory details and a confident defendant. NBC's Mike Kirsch reports.
This courtroom artist's drawing from Tuesday shows military judge Col. James Pohl, top-left, prosecutor, Maj. Michael Holley, sitting lower- left, Army Spc. Charles Graner Jr., center, and defense counsel Guy Womack, sitting lower right.Pat Lopez / AP
/ Source: NBC News

A tall, young, clean-cut U.S. Army prosecutor named Michael Holley looked at the jury of enlisted men and officers assembled before him in a Fort Hood military courtroom. He told them to get ready to hear and see something right out of the World Wrestling Federation --with a sinister edge.

This is how Holley described the violent beatings, pile driving and sexual humiliation of Abu Ghraib detainees by American soldiers during opening arguments of a court martial for the accused ringleader of the abuse, U.S. Army reservist, Specialist Charles Graner, Jr.

Graner, a former prison guard from Pennsylvania, appears in court each day, the confident, smiling, slightly overweight, bespectacled picture of "I did nothing wrong."

He's charged with conspiracy to maltreat detainees, two counts of assault, dereliction of duty and committing indecent acts. He faces up to 17 1/2 years in a military prison.

Fellow soldiers who've already plead guilty to abuse have testified that Graner pummeled detainees. And two of his alleged victims have testified from Iraq that Graner, among other things, forced an inmate to "eat from the toilet," and was the "primary torturer" at Abu Ghraib who laughed, whistled and sang while beating them.

Asked outside court if he felt any remorse for what he did, Graner smiled, rolled his eyes and chuckled. "I won't comment on that," he said.

Finessing damage
Graner's no-nonsense defense attorney Guy Womack, a stocky former Marine, has a strong reputation for finessing damaging evidence with juries.

He is scheduled to begin his defense Wednesday, and he had his work cut out for him — with the now-infamous photo of Graner mugging for the camera as naked detainees were forced into a human pyramid, a photo which drew disgust and outrage from around the world.

"Cheerleaders all over America make pyramids," Womack told the jury in his opening remarks. "It's not torture!"  Womack's remarks prompted raised eyebrows and muffled chortles from more than a few people watching the trial.

Army Spc. Charles Graner is shown after day two of his military trial at Fort Hood, Texas, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2005. Graner is the accused ringleader in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and the first soldier to be tried in the case. (AP Photo/LM Otero)Lm Otero / AP

Womack told the jury that the prisoners Graner was guarding were dangerous individuals, "not just some guys you find standing out front of a Dairy Queen." He said Graner and other soldiers were ordered by military and civilian intelligence officers to soften up detainees for questioning, and that they had no choice but to obey.

Although when Womack was asked during a court recess if he had found an officer who was willing to testify to ordering Graner and others to abuse detainees, he stared blankly ahead, and said, "No." He said two officers who could have testified to giving the orders have taken the military equivalent of the Fifth Amendment.

Perhaps the most telling testimony of the trial has come from the soldier who blew the whistle on Graner and ignited the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Specialist Joseph Darby testified that he knew something was terribly wrong when Graner's immediate superior, Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick, rather than stopping Graner from beating and humiliating detainees, joined him.

Darby testified that Frederick could have easily nipped this whole dark chapter in Iraq in the bud by telling Graner to stop the first time he caught him punching a detainee and making sure it didn't happen again.

Frederick plead guilty to abuse charges and is serving an eight-year prison term.

When Darby was asked in court how he would describe Frederick and why he chose to go over Frederick's head to higher ranking military officials, Darby paused carefully while choosing his words. "Mentally," he said, "Frederick was not mentally astute."

Graner, meanwhile, has remained defiant. Asked as he left court if he felt sorry for the detainees, he bristled, and asked, "Which detainees?"