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A Summary of My Courtroom Experience
During the Court-Martial of Private Manning

Debra Van Poolen

Colonel Denise Lind, Judge

Chelsea (neé Bradley) Manning
fully present for trial

Although Private Manning vs. the United States was one of the most important trials in U.S. history, cameras were not allowed inside the courtroom. Thus, the world’s masses of people impacted by the WikiLeaks releases could not be properly informed of the proceedings.

In the three years following the WikiLeaks releases and Manning’s arrest, the U.S. mainstream media provided minuscule coverage of anything to do with Private Manning, including her* entire three-year pretrial confinement and two years of pretrial hearings. So before the court-martial began, I saw a dire need for alternative media as well as ordinary citizens to daily attend and closely report on the trial, so that together we could make quality information about the historic trial accessible to the citizens of the world.

Pvt Manning in court,
composed after 3 years+ confinement

Courtroom scene
at Ft. Meade, MD

Although I had virtually no experience in courtroom sketching, I predicted that my minimal portrait-drawing skills might prove useful in communicating images from the courtroom to the public.  I arranged my life (found a work-trade/rental situation providing massage, cleaning, and gardening services in exchange for rent) so that I could attend each day of the

Manning attorney David Coombs with military assistant Thomas Hurley

court-martial, which began in the first week of June and lasted until the third week in August 2013.  I taught myself how to use a smartphone’s internet hotspot, a portable scanning device, the Picasa computer program, and Facebook and Twitter accounts so that I could immediately upload images during breaks in the courtroom proceedings.

Throughout the summer’s proceedings, I experienced a huge spectrum of emotions.  I was deeply impressed by how Private Manning held her professional, intensely attentive composure throughout each day of the trial.  She was almost always sitting on the edge of her seat, focused on each word spoken in the courtroom. Every time one of the defense team prepared to speak, Manning flipped the switch that turned on the defense team’s microphone.

Pvt Manning on the day she
gave her statement,
14 August 2013

Witness Moe Davis

Showing of “Collateral Murder” video opens defense case

I was very happy to hear the highly articulate testimony of Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler, who explained the “aiding the enemy” charge’s potential to wield a fatal blow to freedom of the press in the United States.  His testimony followed several days of ridiculous, nauseating prosecution witnesses who claimed—under oath—that national security was harmed by Manning’s actions.


Defense witness Professor Benkler

When Benkler appeared, my heart leapt for joy because the truth was being resurrected (after a few days of hellish defeat) inside the Fort Meade courtroom!

I had fumed through the more than five hours of prosecuting attorney Ashden Fein’s highly repetitive, mind-numbingly boring closing statement (which resulted in the postponement of Coombs’ closing statement until the following day, when much fewer press were present).

Coombs questioning Professor Benkler


I was also very moved by the following testimonies: Lauren McNamara, who spoke regarding Manning’s transgender desires (read her post-trial reflections on “The Humanity of Private Manning” here); Debra Van Alstyne, who described her interactions with Manning as the aunt who offered her nurturing shelter at key times in her life; and Casey Manning, Chelsea’s older sister, who described Chelsea as a wonderful, loving, and dearly missed sibling.

Defense witness
Debra Van Alstyne

Coombs and Manning paying attention


Defense witness Lauren McNamara


I cried throughout the testimony of Casey Manning as the unceremonious courtroom was transformed by the presence of undeniable, sisterly, deep love between Casey and Chelsea Manning.

Manning supporters wearing
“Truth” t-shirts in court

The large group of Manning supporters, dubbed the “truth battalion” by David Coombs, was supportive not only of Chelsea but also of each other.  Each day I went to Fort Meade, I was fascinated to observe who else came to the proceedings and to learn where they were from and what exactly motivated them to support Chelsea by silently sitting in the courtroom.

Many supporters—whether they came just for a couple days or were regular attendees—acknowledged me and thanked me for my work covering the trial. The supporters, most of whom donned “truth” t-shirts for the day, were friendly, intelligent, and informed. Almost every day of the trial, at least 10 Manning supporters sat in the courtroom, and many days more than 30 were in the courtroom, with another 20 in the overflow trailer.

Private Manning

David Coombs often met with Manning supporters after the day’s proceedings, and I valued each word he shared with us about Manning’s well-being and about the intricate developments of case.  He was consistently very warm and appreciative of our
presence, as well as open to answer any questions we asked.

I was also thrilled to meet and work alongside of some of the lawyers, journalists and activists who were regularly attending and/or commenting on the case:  Alexa O’Brien, Nathan Fuller from the Private Manning Support Network, Kevin Gosztola of “The Dissenter,” Michael Ratner, Cornel West, Chris Hedges, Medea Benjamin, Debra Sweet, and Ray McGovern.


Tears for America
and for an American hero

*Private Manning went through arrest and trial by his given name (Bradley) and gender (male), but she subsequently sought to be known as Chelsea, identified as female, and began the process of seeking treatments to become physically female. Thus, with respect, I have chosen here to use feminine pronouns in reference to Private Manning.

I attempted to draw all witnesses who testified, even if they were on the stand for just a few minutes.  Throughout the summer, in between the times of witness testimony, I drew several portraits of Chelsea, David Coombs, and Judge Denise Lind. The drawings from the trial, as well as some watercolor portrait paintings of Manning, can be viewed here.  Four of the images are available as limited-edition Giclée prints and can be ordered via the website. All text and drawings © Debra Van Poolen.

A slightly different version of this statement was published on The World Can’t Wait on 17 December 2013, Chelsea Manning’s 26th birthday, © Debra Van Poolen.
To see Ms Van Poolen’s WARP Place Gallery, click here.