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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