FORT MEADE, Md. -- Facing up to 90 years in prison for releasing a massive cache of war documents to WikiLeaks, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning took the stand Wednesday to ask the judge for mercy.
The soldier's unsworn statement was given to a packed courtroom at Fort Meade. It lasted only three minutes. His hands played nervously with the buttons on his uniform, and his voice sometimes faltered as he read off a sheet of paper to the military judge, Col. Denise Lind.
"First, your honor, I want to start off with an apology," Manning said. "I am sorry. I am sorry that my actions hurt people. I am sorry that it hurt the United States."
"I am sorry for the unintended consequences of my actions. When I made these decisions, I believed I was gonna help people, not hurt people," he continued.
"I understand that I must pay a price for my decision and actions," Manning said, later adding, "I have flaws and issues that I have to deal with, but I know that I can and will be a better person."
Manning's spare plea for leniency came after hours of testimony -- from a psychologist and a psychiatrist who had examined him, as well as from his sister, Casey Major Manning -- establishing his difficult upbringing and struggles with gender identity.
Navy Capt. David Moulton, a forensic psychiatrist, said Bradley Manning exhibited symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome. His sister Casey described their mother's drinking through her pregnancy with Bradley and their harsh family life on a five-acre plot in rural Crescent, Okla.
Their father was a "functional alcoholic," Casey said, yet he was the more stable parent. Their mother would start drinking a rum-and-Coke around noon and keep drinking through the night.
When the father decided to leave the family, the mother swallowed a bottle of Valium pills. As Casey drove to the emergency room, she recalled, she asked her father to move to the back seat to make sure her mother was still breathing, but he refused. So, Casey said, "unfortunately, my 12-year-old brother had to go back there."
"At the time of my decisions, as you know, I was dealing with a lot of issues -- issues that are ongoing, and they are continuing to affect me," Bradley Manning said. He understood what he was doing, he said, but "did not truly appreciate the broader effects of my actions."
Manning's traumatic early life, which meant he had little support to fall back on when he was deployed to Iraq, was only one of the issues he was apparently referencing in his statement.
Moulton testified that at the time of his document disclosures, Manning was grappling with gender dysphoria -- severe discomfort with one's apparent gender. Manning was considering transitioning to be a woman even as he remained within the hostile environment of the military, which still bans transgender people from serving openly. That, combined with a "post-adolescent idealistic phase," Moulton said, "impaired his ability to really rationally think through the consequences of what he was doing."
"He underestimated what the consequences would be, for sure. He thought he would be separated from the military, worst case scenario," Moulton said.
As Manning faces far graver potential consequences -- a virtual life sentence in military prison -- his defense team has focused in the sentencing phase on appealing to the judge's sense of compassion, rather than building an argument that he was acting as a whistle-blower in the public interest.
Manning's plea for leniency acknowledged that his actions have "hurt" people. Nevertheless, more than a week of public sentencing testimony from prosecution witnesses did not demonstrate that anyone was killed as a result of his disclosures.
"How on earth could I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world for the better over the decisions of those with the proper authority?" Manning asked in his statement. "In retrospect, I should have worked more aggressively inside the system ... [I] had options, and I should have used these options."
Read the full transcript of Manning's statement, via independent journalist Alexa O'Brien:
First, your Honor. I want to start off with an apology. I am sorry. I am sorry that my actions hurt people. I am sorry that it hurt the United States. At the time of my decisions, as you know, I was dealing with a lot of issues -- issues that are ongoing and they are continuing to affect me.
Although they have caused me considerable difficulty in my life, these issues are not an excuse for my actions. I understood what I was doing and the decisions I made. However, I did not truly appreciate the broader effects of my actions. Those effects are clearer to me now through both self-reflection during my confinement in its various forms and through the merits and sentencing testimony that I have seen here.
I am sorry for the unintended consequences of my actions. When I made these decisions I believed I was gonna help people, not hurt people. The last few years have been a learning experience. I look back at my decisions and wonder, 'How on earth could I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world for the better over the decisions of those with the proper authority?'
In retrospect I should have worked more aggressively inside the system as we discussed during the Providence Statement and had options and I should have used these options. Unfortunately, I can't go back and change things. I can only go forward. I want to go forward. Before I can do that though, I understand that I must pay a price for my decisions and actions.
Once I pay that price, I hope to one day live in the manner I haven't been able to in the past. I want to be a better person -- to go to college -- to get a degree -- and to have a meaningful relationship with my sister's family and my family.
I want to be a positive influence in their lives, just as my aunt Deborah has been to me. I have flaws and issues that I have to deal with, but I know that I can and will be a better person. I hope you can give me the opportunity to prove -- not through words, but through conduct -- that I am a good person, and that I can return to a productive place in society.
Thank you, your Honor.