Bradley Manning Trial Underway; Defense Seeks Recusal of Judge

A protester, wearing an anonymous mask, holds up a sign demanding the release of Bradley Manning, the US soldier accused of passing restricted material to the website WikiLeaks, during a demonstration. Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images(FORT MEADE, Md.) -- Court proceedings against suspected WikiLeaks source Pfc. Bradley Manning got underway in Maryland Friday with defense attorneys arguing that the reserve officer presiding over the hearing should recuse himself for perceived bias.

Defense lawyers said that because the reserve officer overseeing the Article 32 hearing, who is known in the military as the investigating officer, works a day job at the Department of Justice, he cannot be impartial. The Justice Department is also investigating Manning.

But after a recess, Lt. Col. Paul Almanza denied the request and said he would not recuse himself because a reasonable person would believe he could remain unbiased.

The pre-trial hearing started shortly after 9 a.m. but quickly went into recess a half hour later after defense attorneys requested the recusal. The proceeding Friday is the equivalent of grand jury hearings in the civilian world.

Manning is making his first court appearance after more than a year and a half of detention. Of slight build, Manning wore his camouflage uniform and sported thick black-rimmed glasses. He sat between his civilian and military defense attorneys. The hearing is taking place in a small courtroom at Fort Meade. Protesters who support Manning gathered outside the gates of the base.

The hearing began normally enough with the investigating officer, Almanza, going through the charges against Manning.  He asked Manning some procedural questions such as whether he had a copy of the charges against him.

“Yes, sir, I do,” Manning replied.

Asked whether he had any questions, Manning replied, “No, sir.”

Asked whether he was comfortable with his legal counsel, Manning said, “Yes, sir.”

Almanza then gave David Coombs the floor so the defense attorney could ask questions about his suitability to preside over the hearing.  Coombs asked Almanza about his professional background and how much he knew about Manning’s case.

After his line of questioning, Coombs said he was filing a motion that Almanza recuse himself also "because Almanza has granted the prosecution’s request for its 21 witnesses.  But he has only granted two of the 38 witnesses they had called.  Coombs said, an individual looking at this form the outside would say that clearly in this case the investigating officer is biased. ”

Coombs suggested Almanza would allow unsworn statements to be heard from the prosecution side on the classification of materials being presented in the case. He said the reason the case had taken so long to get to this stage is because the prosecution has repeatedly been granted delays so it could get clarity about the classification of materials that might be presented in the case.

Coombs then walked toward the witness stand and, pointing at it, said, “Why is this stuff classified?”

He said, “A year and a half later, where is the damage? Where is the harm?”

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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