Chelsea Manning’s 35-year prison sentence has been commuted by President Barack Obama.
On Tuesday, January 17, three days before the White House is to change hands, President Obama signed off on a measure that freed Manning from the responsibility of serving the remaining time in her sentence, although her conviction remains. The former Army Pfc. is expected to be released from the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth in May.
Manning spent much of the first 3 years of her sentence in solitary confinement when not sent back to the all-male population at Fort Leavenworth. Citing a demoralizing and destabilizing environment, the New York Times reported in November 2016 that she tried to kill herself twice that year.
Manning’s sentence, passed down by Colonel Denise Lind in military court proceedings in 2013, represents the longest punitive measure ever given for leaking classified material. Along with a dishonorable discharge and forfeiture of pay, the sentence attached to multiple counts of espionage, theft, and computer fraud for handing over 700,000 documents to Wikileaks would have kept Manning behind bars for 35 years, with possible eligibility for parole in 12.
One of a president’s most far-reaching powers is the ability to grant clemency to the accused, commuting long sentences and restoring freedom.
For Chelsea Manning — sentenced to 35 years for leaking 700,000 sensitive military files to Wikileaks — that presidential power could release her from prison if action is taken quickly.
Pardons releasing individuals from their convictions or their commutations (which cancel the sentence but not the conviction) have been granted by all but two presidents in the history of the United States; they’ve named individuals from every strata of the American experience that have been accused of crimes like sedition, mail fraud, and drug smuggling. From the Lafitte pirates pardoned by President James Madison; to Richard Nixon, pardoned by his successor, President Gerald R. Ford, before indictment in the Watergate proceedings; to Patty Hearst, noted heiress and bank robber, pardoned by President Bill Clinton, the range of those who have been granted this act of mercy is vast.
While Manning’s request for commutation arrived on President Barack Obama’s desk in November, the president has until the end of his term, Jan. 20, to consider the action. It is the second of such requests from the former Army Pfc. for “a first chance at life.”
“President Obama has the opportunity to right this wrong and commute her sentence to time served and we hope that he’ll give Chelsea a chance to live her life after her courageous act to raise public awareness about the impact of war on innocent civilians,” Vince Ward, one of Manning’s attorneys, wrote in a statement.
When Manning first joined the U.S. Army in 2007, it was Bradley Manning’s name on the enlistment form. Manning was forced to keep her personal life a secret under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy while facing regular harassment and hazing. Despite the adverse treatment, Manning was noted for her analytical prowess, and promoted to the role of intelligence analyst in Iraq.
Two years later, pushed to her limits and considering hormone replacement therapy or suicide, Manning found someone in an internet chat room who was interested in her work. It happened to be Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks.
The resulting exchange led to Manning’s arrest in 2010, after the documents were published. Included in the collection were details on airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the diplomatic communication involved in each war. Manning was charged with “aiding the enemy” among 21 other charges, which could have promised her execution.
In 2013, Manning was convicted of 17 of those charges, not including aiding the enemy. In her guilty plea, she offered an apology to the country.
“I’m sorry,” Manning said. “I’m sorry that my actions hurt people. I’m sorry that they hurt the United States.”
A day later, Manning changed her first name to Chelsea. She was sent to the maximum-security U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth where she is expected to stay for the next 35 years.
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“After this case, I had to tell Chelsea: ‘I’ve represented murderers. I’ve represented rapists. I’ve represented child molesters. And none of them received 35 years,'” Manning’s lawyer David Coombs told NBC News.
As NPR reported in November 2016, Manning has access to hormone therapies in prison but she is still detained with the male population.
“The bottom-line is this: I need help and I am still not getting it,” Manning wrote. “I am living through a cycle of anxiety, anger, hopelessness, loss, and depression. I cannot focus. I cannot sleep. I attempted to take my own life. When the [United States Disciplinary Barracks] placed me in solitary confinement as punishment for the attempted suicide, I tried it again because the feeling of hopelessness was so immense. This has served as a reminder to me that any lack of treatment can kill me, so I must keep fighting a battle that I wish every day would just end.”
Presidential power is being handed over to Donald Trump on Jan. 20. If Obama does not offer a commutation within the next week, Manning will be confined to Fort Leavenworth for another 32 years.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.