FT. MEADE, Md. — Turning in the witness chair to face the judge, sometimes choking on his words, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning on Wednesday apologized that he had "hurt people" and "hurt the United States" by leaking the largest amount of U.S. classified documents in the nation's history.
He asked for an opportunity "to prove, not through words, but through conduct, that I am a good person."
Manning, reading from a few handwritten pages, spoke after his older sister testified that their parents often passed out drunk and left their infant son crying in his crib night after night. He was followed on the witness stand by a beloved aunt who said he was fed baby food until he was 2 and was eventually abandoned by his parents.
Now 25, Manning is the former intelligence analyst in Iraq who provided more than 700,000 classified materials to the anti-secrecy group
On Wednesday, he sat awkwardly in the witness chair for just a few minutes. He gave what in a court-martial is called a "non-sworn statement." Under rules for such statements, he was not asked any questions by his defense lawyers, and government prosecutors were not permitted to cross-examine him.
Manning spoke in a hushed courtroom. Though he faced the judge, his words echoed loudly. He began by clearing his throat and struggled to calm his hands, shaking the pages before him.
"I want to start off with an apology," he said. "I am sorry that my actions hurt people. I'm sorry that I hurt the United States."
In Iraq in 2009 and 2010, he said, "I was dealing with a lot of issues, issues that are ongoing and continuing to affect me. Although a considerable difficulty in my life, these issues are not an excuse for my actions. I understood what I was doing."
He did not need to say what the issues were. Since the court-martial began June 3, much of the trial has focused on his struggles with his homosexuality, what two
"I am sorry for the unintended consequences of my actions," he said. "When I made these decisions, I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people.
"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."
But, he said, "unfortunately, I can't go back and change things. I can only go forward."
Manning said he was ready to accept his punishment, which could be as much as 90 years in prison. "I understand that I must pay a price for my decisions and actions," he said. "Once I pay that price, I hope to one day live in a manner that I haven't been able to in the past. I want to be a better person."
He said he still hoped to go to college and have a meaningful relationship with his sister and her family.
"I have flaws and issues that I have to deal with," he said, "but I know that I can and will be a better person."
He asked the judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, to give him a chance to return to a "productive place in society."
His sister, Casey Major, 11 years older and a stay-at-home mother of two, described a terrible childhood in rural Oklahoma. Their parents drank heavily and repeatedly broke up, often forcing her to raise her brother.
"She wouldn't get up at night," she said of their mother. "So I would make a bottle, change a diaper. If I was awake and he was crying, she would direct me to get up and take care of my brother."
For a while they lived in rural Crescent, Okla., where Manning tried to be "a happy kid," she said. "He had little trucks he played with in the dirt." Later, he was always on a computer, or in his room playing with Legos.
When she turned 18, she left home, leaving Manning alone with their mother because their father was gone too. The mother served him "kids' cuisine" microwave dinners and, while in drunken stupors, threatened to kill herself.
When defense attorney David Coombs displayed photos of Manning as a child, Major cried. One showed him playing in a box, another in an oversize cowboy hat. Others had him on a swing in their pasture or petting a puppy. In one, he wore glasses under his blond hair, and his fingers were working a computer keyboard.
"From a certain age on, he was at the computer," his sister said.
She said that, since his arrest in May 2010, he had changed. "It's just amazing how much he's matured," she said.
"I just hope he can be who he wants to be. I hope he can just be happy."
His aunt, Debra Van Alstyne, also described a terrible childhood. She said she was stunned when her thin, short, scrawny nephew joined the Army. But Manning told her he wanted the GI Bill for college. She was stunned again to learn that he had been arrested in Iraq. "I was just totally shocked," she said.
Two mental health experts also testified.
Manning had "abnormal personality traits," said Capt. David Moulton, a forensic psychiatrist, such as wanting since 13 to be president of the United States and fantasizing that his leaks would end not only the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but also all wars for all time. "He knew he wanted to do something great," Moulton said.
Capt. Michael Worsley, a psychologist, characterized Manning as a gay man trying to fit into the "hyper-masculine" environment of the Army. "The pressure would have been difficult to say the least," he said. "It would have been incredible."