ABC News’ Devin Dwyer (@devindwyer) reports: Supporters of Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, who was arrested one year ago today on suspicion of leaking a cache of secret government documents to WikiLeaks, believe an unwitting mistake President Obama made last month could hold the key to getting Manning off the hook.
Manning, who’s being held in a military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., will be formally charged this summer and faces a possible trial before a jury of military officers before the end of the year.
But a group of lawyers close to Manning’s defense say comments made by Obama at a California fundraiser on April 21 have compromised a fair trial because of the influence remarks by the commander in chief can carry.
Obama told a group of Manning supporters who confronted him, “If I was to release stuff, information that I’m not authorized to release, I’m breaking the law. … We’re a nation of laws.”
"We don’t individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate,” Obama said of the Manning case, according to video of the encounter posted online. “He broke the law.”
Since no court has heard evidence against Manning or rendered judgment on any charges, some legal experts say Obama’s comments could be grounds for a mistrial.
“This amounts to unlawful command influence,” Kevin Zeese, a lawyer with the Bradley Manning Support Network, told reporters Wednesday.
“How are these officers [on a jury] going to rule against their commander in chief?” Zeese said.“Any officer that finds Manning not guilty will have no chance of advancing his career after doing so.”
Zeese said military legal precedent recognizes high-level command influence on judicial proceedings as a “cancer” on the justice system and one to which judges are highly sensitive.
“The only way the military can claim that there’s no undue command influence in this case is to create a charade,” he said. “A charade where the officers involved say they’re not listening to their commander in chief.”
The White House has said Obama was not referring specifically to Manning or the charges against him when he made the comments last month.
And several legal experts believe Obama’s comments, however unseemly, probably will not derail the proceedings.
This is “much ado about nothing,” said Gary Myers, a civilian attorney who regularly defends soldiers facing military court martial.
Myers, who represented several soldiers charged in the Abu Gharaib prison scandal in 2004, said President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made similar pronouncements about his clients that the court failed to take into account.
“The best you can hope for is reduction in confinement due to unlawful action” after the case is heard, Myers said of Manning’s case. Pushing Obama’s comments gives Manning’s defense “good press” but the effort has “no substance,” he said.