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Dog handler's kin ask court for mercy

Father tells jury: 'I've already lost one son this year'

From Paul Courson
CNN

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FORT MEADE, Maryland (CNN) -- An Army dog handler convicted of using his snarling animal to torment Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib told a military jury Tuesday that he wished he had gotten his instructions in writing.

Sgt. Michael Smith, 25, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, took the stand late Tuesday at a hearing to determine his sentence.

Earlier Tuesday, a court-martial jury found Smith guilty of charges he used his military dog, Marco, to terrify prisoners -- allegedly for amusement and in competition with other soldiers.

Smith also was found guilty of allowing his dog to participate in videotaped lewd acts involving two other U.S. soldiers at the prison.

"It was foolish, stupid, and juvenile. There's nothing I can do to take it back. If I could, I would," Smith said about the sexual incident. He read from a prepared statement.

Smith did not specifically express regret for the wrongdoing involving detainees at the U.S.-managed prison in Baghdad, Iraq.

"One thing I wish I could do as Sgt. Smith," he said, " is that I'd like to go back and pull young Specialist Smith over, and say, 'Let me talk to you. You need to get something in writing to CYA or you're going to end up in a heap of trouble.'"

Earlier Tuesday, family members broke down in tears as they testified in hopes of winning a lenient sentence.

'I've already lost one son'

"I've already lost one son this year, it would be tough to lose two," said his father, Charles Smith. The father told jurors that Smith's older brother Brian, 29, died in January of a massive heart attack.

As the court martial began March 13, Smith faced a maximum of 24 years on 13 counts. But he was convicted of six counts, and one count was thrown out Tuesday as redundant.

Smith now is looking at a maximum sentence of about eight years in prison. The judge, Lt. Col. Paul McConnell, said he hoped to announce the sentence Wednesday.

Prosecutors had planned to call a civilian expert to testify that terrorist groups are recruiting and inciting violence with the help of the infamous snapshots of U.S. troops mistreating prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But the witness was not available.

Defense attorneys Tuesday were calling character witnesses as well as presenting written testimony from Smith's other friends and military colleagues.

Capt. Craig Hager, one of Smith's former commanders, wrote that his experience with Smith left the impression that he is an "excellent soldier, a reliable noncommissioned officer, and a good dog handler despite what he was accused of."

Hager said Smith needed "no additional supervisions despite what he was going through."

Family man

Defense attorneys portrayed Smith as a responsible man devoted to his family who since the scandal broke has had to deal with his brother's death.

The brother's widow, Rachel, 27, tearfully testified that Smith is helping to raise his 4-year-old nephew, Matthew. Rachel Smith has been in the gallery of the court-martial since it began.

"I don't want to lose any more of this family, this love, and I don't want to lose any more of it, ever ever," she said, her voice rising with emotion, Army Capt. Scott Rolle asked on Smith's behalf how the case has affected her.

She broke into tears and her voice quavered as she described how she would have to explain a prison sentence to her son.

"I can't imagine going home and trying to explain to him that Uncle Mike is not coming home," she said.

A panel of four officers and three enlisted soldiers found Smith guilty Tuesday of mistreating a prisoner with his unmuzzled, barking and growling dog; guilty of mistreating two juvenile detainees at Abu Ghraib by harassing and threatening them with the dog; guilty of using his dog to make detainees soil themselves out of fear; and guilty of failing to use his dog solely for authorized purposes.

Smith was also found guilty of an indecent act involving his dog.

Soldier Jennifer Scala testified on the first day of the court-martial that she allowed Smith's dog to lick peanut butter she had placed on her bare chest as part of a dare by another soldier, who videotaped the stunt.

During the same incident, a second soldier allowed Smith's dog to lick peanut butter from his genitals on videotape.

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