Army dog handler gets six months in prison

Updated: 2006-03-23 09:12
Large Medium Small

An Army dog handler was sentenced Wednesday to six months behind bars for using his snarling canine to torment prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Army dog handler gets six months in prison
This undated still photo shows a U.S. soldier holding a dog in front an Iraqi detainee at Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad. An Army dog handler was sentenced Wednesday to six months behind bars for using his snarling canine to torment prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

The military jury handed down the sentence a day after convicting Sgt. Michael J. Smith, 24, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He could have gotten 8 1/2 years in prison.

Smith was sentenced on five charges, including maltreatment of prisoners, conspiring with another dog handler in a contest to try to frighten detainees at the Iraqi prison into soiling themselves, and directing his dog to lick peanut butter off other soldiers' bodies.

Smith was also demoted to private and will receive a bad-conduct discharge after getting out of prison.

Under military law, a prison sentence and a bad-conduct discharge requires Smith to forfeit all pay during his prison sentence, said Lt. Col. Bobbi Davis, a military legal expert.

Prosecutors said he let his unmuzzled black Belgian shepherd bark and lunge at cowering Iraqis for his own amusement. The defense argued that Smith believed he was following orders to soften up prisoners for interrogation.

Smith appeared unrepentant when he addressed the jury Tuesday, shortly after he was convicted. "Soldiers are not supposed to be soft and cuddly," he said. Smith also said he wished he had gotten his orders in writing.

Nine other soldiers have been convicted of abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Among other things, prisoners were photographed in sexually humiliating poses.

Former Cpl. Charles Graner Jr. received the longest sentence — 10 years in prison. Lynndie England, a 23-year-old reservist photographed giving a thumbs-up in front of naked prisoners, is serving three years behind bars.

In closing arguments, prosecutors urged the jury to send Smith to prison for at least three years, suggesting that his actions could undermine U.S. standing in the world.

"Every soldier must understand that individual acts of misconduct have strategic implications," said Maj. Matthew Miller, a prosecutor. "This is a global war on terror. It is a global battle for the hearts and minds of people all over the world."

But the defense said Smith should not serve jail time and instead be returned to his family and unit. Defense attorney Capt. Scott Rolle told the jury that while Smith made mistakes at Abu Ghraib, he is also a hero for saving the lives of other U.S. soldiers during a mortar attack.

The relatively light punishment surprised Eugene R. Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, in Alexandria, Va.

"I think people around the world are going to be scratching their heads at that sentence," he said. "The conduct of which this soldier was convicted is highly offensive, and if this is all one gets — it's not impunity, but it's getting real close."