FORT HOOD, Texas - Pfc. Lynndie England, the young woman pictured grinning, giving a thumbs-up and holding a naked Iraqi by a leash in some of the most notorious photos to come out of the Abu Ghraib scandal, pleaded guilty Monday to mistreating prisoners.
Wearing her dress green Army uniform and speaking somberly in a soft voice, the 22-year-old Army reservist told the judge that she initially resisted taking part in the abuse at the Baghdad prison, but ultimately caved in to pressure from her comrades.
"I had a choice, but I chose to do what my friends wanted me to," she said, entering her pleas a day before the start of her trial.
The charges carry up to 11 years in prison, but prosecutors and the defense reached an agreement for a lesser sentence. A military jury will convene on Tuesday to determine her punishment; she will get the lesser of the jury's sentence or the term agreed on in the plea bargain.
If she had been convicted as charged, she could have gotten 16 1/2 years behind bars.
The judge asked her about a photo depicting her smiling and pointing at a naked detainee's genitals while smoking a cigarette. England said she replied, "No, no way" at first when a fellow soldier asked her to pose for the picture.
"But they were being very persistent, bugging me, so I said, `OK, whatever,'" she told the judge.
The plea bargain settles one of the most prominent cases to come out of the Abu Ghraib scandal, which damaged the image of America's military and sparked outrage against the United States around the globe.
England became a central figure in the scandal after photos emerged last year showing her and others sexually humiliating Iraqi prisoners.
One of the photos showed her holding a hooded, naked prisoner on a leash. Another showed her smiling and giving a thumbs-up next to a nude prisoners stacked in a pyramid. A third depicted England pointing at the prisoner's genitals as a cigarette dangled from her lips.
England's lawyers have argued that she and others in her military police unit were acting on orders from military intelligence to "soften up" prisoners for interrogation. But Army investigators testified during hearings last summer that England said the reservists took the photos while "they were joking around, having some fun."
The judge, Col. James Pohl, went through each photo while asking England about her actions at Abu Ghraib in the fall of 2003.
She told the judge that Pvt. Charles Graner Jr., the reputed ringleader of the abuses and the man said to be the father of England's infant son, put the leash around the prisoner's neck in order to take him from one cell to another.
When the prisoner resisted, she told the judge, Graner said to her: "Hold this, I'm going to take a picture."
Pohl asked if she thought the leash was a legitimate way to control the detainee.
"I assumed it was OK" because he was an MP, England said of Graner. "He had a background as a corrections officer."
Graner was convicted in January on a range of abuse charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Last month, he married former Spc. Megan Ambuhl, an Abu Ghraib defendant who was discharged from the Army without serving prison time. Graner had another man stand in for him in the marriage-by-proxy April 12 near Fort Hood.
England's lawyer Rick Hernandez said last week that the defense will present evidence during the sentencing that England has severe learning disabilities and mental problems. He said there had been no decision on whether she will testify.
England entered guilty pleas to two counts of conspiracy to maltreat prisoners, four counts of maltreating prisoners and one count of committing an indecent act. Prosecutors agreed to drop another count of committing an indecent act and one count of dereliction of duty.
England, from Fort Ashby, W.Va., is one of seven members of the Maryland-based 372nd Military Police Company charged with humiliating and assaulting prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
Four other members of the 372nd and two low-level military intelligence officers have entered guilty pleas, with sentences ranging from no time to 8 1/2 years. The only soldier to stand trial so far is Graner. Spc. Sabrina Harman, a former Abu Ghraib guard, is scheduled to go to trial at Fort Hood next week.
Several investigations have been conducted, but so far only low-level soldiers have been charged, though the defendants have alleged that high-level officials condoned the abuse.
In England's hometown in West Virginia, Joyce Satzer said the scandal has given the community a bad name.
"For someone to do something like that, and then for her to be from Fort Ashby, it's upsetting," said Satzer, 73. "This is a nice place to live."