On “armchair defendants” and Bradley Manning’s lawyers

Today Bradley Manning apologised at the military tribunal – the apology is here.


The apology reads as if it was drafted by his defense lawyers: it is not only contrite, but it presses every button for the tribunal not to impose a harsh sentence.


This should not be a surprise, for the impression which has formed for many following this prosecution is that Manning is getting very good legal advice.


Instead of denying all charges, a wise decision was taken to admit the lesser charges and focus the defense on the more serious ones.  That tactic worked: Manning was found not guilty on the more serious charges.


Now at sentencing,  there is contrition and not crowd-pleasing defiance.  It may not be enough to prevent a heavy sentence, but it certainly will not provoke the tribunal into wanting to make a lesson of him.


Any lawyer defending a case in the public eye is aware that the defendant’s supporters will often want a more robust and confrontational approach to the case.  This pressure should be disregarded: the priority is always the client’s interests.  The media or political context of a case should not, of course, be ignored – and there are benefits to having external support – but the most important goal must be to get the optimal outcome for the defendant.


By concentrating on defeating the more serious charges, and by this show of contrition, it would seem that Manning now has the best possible chance of the lowest sentence available in the circumstances.  And if this is so, then it is the lawyers which should be thanked for that.


It is easy to be an “armchair defendant” – but it is less easy to be a real one sitting in a court room, or in a prison cell.




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10 thoughts on “On “armchair defendants” and Bradley Manning’s lawyers”

  1. Actually, the US legal system and culture generally, is more apt to apologise, something seriously lacking in the UK. Years ago, before I ever needed a UK lawyer, an American lawyer once told me on a plane that UK lawyers usually don’t settle cases til the courtroom door. This is in comparison to US lawyers, who when they know the case is against them, will settle early on. I remembered that tidbit when I could not understand why the UK press would not give me a right of reply or settle my libel claims.

    Why don’t they just settle and get it over with? Lessons for Leveson….the press is not the only problem, the legal system is just as bad, if not worse!

  2. The apology takes away nothing from Bradley Manning’s heroism in blowing the whistle. While it’s presumably very little comfort to him right now, I have no doubt history will vindicate him.

    It’s also in sharp contrast to Julian Assange’s self-indulgent grandstanding.

  3. It’s an odd sort of game, though, isn’t it? As you say, Manning’s apology is (with a high degree of likelihood) purely a tactic designed to minimise his sentence. You know it, I know it, the court knows it, even Assange knows it. So what’s the point?

  4. I like the speculations of legal niceties that have been following the verdict, and I suppose that after three years in solitary confinement under conditions that could very well be describes a torture, a confession must be taken as value. I feel like I’m witnessing the contrition of a Galileo before the Inquisition, and have as much faith in the sincerity of the confession.

    No, that is wrong. I’m sure Manning is sincere. I’m sure he’s very sorry for the treatment he’s received, and I harbour no suspicion or ill will if he decides to try and deceive a justice system that has treated him so unfairly. I just hope that one day, some day, he will actually receive justice.

    Then the legal niceties can become, you know, important again.

  5. Civil disobedience is unlike most other ‘crime’; the act itself is in part defined by the weight of legal response. The participant in disobedience makes a principled stand, and does so knowing that they will face some kind of judgement from the system they are disobeying.

    It is in exactly this way that Manning and his defence team have looked to soften and explain his actions more favourably. His statement essentially reads: as well as facing personal issues that may have affected my judgement, I was blinded by idealism and did not comprehend that my actions would hurt not help the country I love.

    It is worth noting that his quarrel is not, and has never been with the legal system. He is not, it seems to me, arguing that all people should have the right to release confidential files. He was, rather, showing the extent of those files, and the actions of his country.

    Once ‘caught’ and the game is up, continued defiance is crowd pleasing and a great deal can still be achieved through defiance (Nelson Mandela). But, in my view (although still civil disobedience) Manning’s situation is very, very different. In the age of information, the act has already been seen worldwide and become larger than the man – as have the released files themselves.

    Manning did something he knew was wrong to make a point, but his argument is not with the legal system. This means that the system will work as intended and he should feel no shame in participating in it as effectively as possible.

  6. His excellent professional written statement of remorse in which he basically undercut his entire legal defense and admitted that his actions were morally and legally wrong, did cause damage to his country and were entirely unjustified doesn’t seem to have bought him a lot of mercy since he got sentenced to 35 years in prison anyway.

    Yet, I suspect his statement is going to cause him a lot of problems if there’s ever an effort to pressure Obama for a pardon, he’ll just weasel his way out of it by saying that there’s no justification for pardoning a common criminal. So, I’d say that his lawyers made a very poor choice. I also think it was a mistake not to have brought pressure on Obama to bargain for very light sentence during his reelection campaign when he need the support of the base of the Democratic Party—most of whom think Bradly Manning did the right thing. Really, the only chance of a light sentence would have come from pressure on Obama and not as the result of his confession that he did wrong.

    I think Manning would have been much better off to have politely said that he did what he did because he thought it was right and that the only harm that came from his actions was that war criminals and corrupt or lying government officials were exposed. So if his punishment would be commensurate with the harm he did, then he should be released immediately.

    Notably, none of the people involved in any of the atrocities or corruption exposed by Manning has spent even a single day in jail. Not even the guys in the helicopter who massacred civilians (including two children) who weren’t even kicked out of the army.

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