Why Can’t Lynndie Plead Guilty?

She swears she did it.

Not guilty … yet

The court-martial of Pfc. Lynndie England ended in a mistrial on Wednesday when a military judge rejected her guilty plea during sentencing. England pleaded guilty to seven counts related to the mistreatment of inmates at Abu Ghraib, including the charge that she conspired with the abuse case’s alleged ringleader, Charles Graner. The judge, though, ruled that her plea was invalid because England didn’t believe in her own guilt. Can a judge really tell someone that they can’t plead guilty?

Yes. A judge in either a military trial or a federal criminal trial must formally accept a guilty plea. According to both the Manual for Courts-Martial and the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, the judge must first determine that the defendant was not compelled to plead guilty by “force, threats, or promises.” He or she must then decide whether there is “a factual basis for the plea.” The judge makes these determinations by asking the defendant a series of questions in the courtroom.

In a court-martial, the judge’s questions must reflect an additional guideline present only in the military rules. For a guilty plea to be factual, “the accused must be convinced of, and able to describe all the facts necessary to establish guilt.”

When England entered her plea on Monday, she claimed her crimes were committed under orders from a superior. The judge pressed her on this issue, telling England she could only plead guilty if she thought she was guilty. After a conference with her lawyers, England changed her testimony, saying, “I had a choice, but I chose what my friends wanted me to do.” The judge then accepted her plea, and the trial went to sentencing. But when England’s defense called Graner to the stand during sentencing, he implied, in an apparent effort to win leniency for England, that no crime of conspiracy had been committed. In light of this new information, the judge rejected her guilty plea and declared a mistrial.

What would have happened if England had been tried in civilian court? The judge would still have needed to establish a “factual basis” for the plea, but the federal rules provide no specific instructions for what this means. Legal precedents suggest that a judge needs only factual evidence (like the prosecutor’s case against the defendant) to support the plea—England’s own views on her guilt wouldn’t matter.

A criminal defendant in civilian court can even plead guilty while maintaining his or her innocence—what’s called an “Alford plea.” In 1970’s North Carolina v. Alford, the Supreme Court ruled that defendants can make a rational decision to accept a plea bargain (and a reduced sentence) without admitting to a crime.

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Explainer thanks Phillip Carter of McKenna Long & Aldridge, Eugene Fidell of Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell, Scott Silliman of Duke University, and Stephen Saltzburg of George Washington University.