Officer was retired over his objections
By Rick Rogers
Marine lawyer has sought judicial reform
CAMP PENDLETON – When Colby Vokey joined the Marine Corps, he didn't plan on becoming a prominent and sometimes divisive figure in the military's legal system.That's how he left the service this month after years of defending Marines tried for offenses at Camp Pendleton, troops accused of war crimes in Iraq and a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, suspected of terrorist activity.
He retired as a lieutenant colonel and chief of the Marine Corps' defense lawyers for the western United States. One of his last major duties was representing Frank Wuterich, the Camp Pendleton staff sergeant accused of leading his men on a rampage and killing two dozen civilians in Haditha, Iraq, in November 2005.
Over his objections, the Marine Corps retired Vokey even though Wuterich is scheduled to be court-martialed.
Vokey has pressed for changes to the military's judicial process, and he is an outspoken critic of the tribunal system being used to prosecute alleged terrorists at Guantanamo Bay.
“I speak my mind when I see something wrong,” he said. “I think that (angered) a lot of people.”
Vokey said he has no sympathy for terrorists or their sympathizers. “There are guys down in Guantanamo who would, if you sat down next to them, try to kill you,” he said.
But Vokey said many of the detainees are being deprived of their legal rights and are physically and mentally mistreated.
“I walked in thinking that trials in Gitmo were going to be like a court-martial,” Vokey said. “Then you realize the whole trial system is a sham. There was a complete lack of due process. It is disturbing and embarrassing what is going on down there.”
Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a spokesman at the Pentagon, disputes Vokey's assertions.
“He has said a lot of things that don't stand up to facts,” Gordon said.
Camp Pendleton officials declined to comment on Vokey's criticisms.
Haytham Faraj, a former Marine lawyer who served with Vokey for three years at Camp Pendleton, said military lawyers usually don't speak publicly about court cases.
“But in his case, he was operating in Guantanamo Bay with no rules,” Faraj said. “You have to understand that Colby is not a liberal. He is a conservative who supported the administration, and he believed in the war. He was a true believer. It took a long time for his views to shift.”
The military appointed Vokey in November 2005 to defend Omar Khadr, who is accused of killing an Army sergeant with a grenade in Afghanistan in 2002, when the defendant was 15.
While at Guantanamo, Vokey said, he heard first-hand accounts of the harsh interrogation tactics that largely have been confirmed by federal and Pentagon officials in the past year. He said detainees were routinely exposed to temperature extremes, marathon questioning and frequent moves from one holding cell to another.
Vokey offered an example in an interview with National Public Radio late last year: “Omar was in this stress position, his hands behind his legs, chained to his feet, and he was chained to the floor. And he was trying to stand on his knees like that, and he would eventually fall over. They'd come and pick him back up. He'd fall over, they'd pick him up. And after somewhere between four and six hours, he ended up urinating on himself. So when they came in, he's lying there in the puddle of his own urine. “They come in, they squirt Pine-Sol on the ground and they grab Omar, and they use him as a human mop – mopping up the urine in the Pine-Sol with him – and then just leaving him there with the urine and Pine-Sol on his body.”
About a year earlier, Vokey had complained to the Inspector General's Office at the Pentagon about alleged abuses at Guantanamo after his paralegal said guards bragged to her about beating detainees.
The military later concluded that those claims were groundless.
Vokey's blunt assessments aren't limited to Guantanamo cases. He sees a need to overhaul the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the bedrock of the military's legal system.
For example, he wants to change the way military juries – officially called panels – are chosen. Currently, certain generals get to decide whether a service member should be charged, whether that person should be court-martialed and who is chosen for the jury pool. Some legal experts have said the practice concentrates too much power in the hands of those generals.
Vokey has returned to his native Texas, where he now lives in the Dallas area with his wife and three children, ages 9, 14 and 19. He plans to continue practicing law – as a civilian attorney – and hopes to help military lawyers defend service members charged with crimes.
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