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Respected Marine Lawyer Alleges Military Injustices

National Public Radio (All Things Considered)
October 30, 2007

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I’m Robert Siegel. And in this segment of the program, we’ll hear about a top lawyer in the U.S. Marine Corps who has come to a troubling conclusion. Colby Vokey has played a role in some of the military’s hottest legal cases - the murder investigation in Haditha, Iraq, the handling of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Well, Vokey says some officers and people in the Bush administration have abused the military system of justice, and he doesn’t want to be part of it anymore. NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling spent some time with Colby Vokey.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: When you talk to officers who know Colby Vokey, they speak about him like he’s a saint. Does Colby Vokey have integrity?

Lieutenant Colonel MATTHEW CORD (U.S. Marine Corps): Yes, in spades. He’s just one of the best.

ZWERDLING: That’s a lieutenant colonel in the Marines named Matthew Cord. And ask a retired colonel named Jane Siegel. She used to be in charge of all the Corps’ defense lawyers around the world.

Ms. JANE SIEGEL (Retired Colonel, U.S. Marine Corps): Colby Vokey - I mean, integrity almost seems like a word too small to describe him.

ZWERDLING: So these lawyers say when Vokey decides to quit, it says something troubling about what’s happening in the world of military justice. Vokey has served for almost 20 years. He’s chief of all the Corps’ defense lawyers of the western United States. He says he voted for President Bush. He supports the war in Iraq. But Vokey has announced that he’s going to leave the Marine Corps next spring.

Lieutenant Colonel COLBY VOKEY (Regional Defense Counsel, Western Region, U.S. Marine Corps): I am fed up. I think changes to the system are well-overdue. And it’s a little frustrating when you see problems are highlighted time and time and again. ZWERDLING: It sounds like you’re saying that this is not the Marine Corps. This is not the legal system in the military that you signed up and have devoted your adult life to.

Lt. Col. VOKEY: No, not at all. (Soundbite of helicopter flying overhead)

ZWERDLING: I went to meet Colby Vokey at Camp Pendleton in California, that’s the huge Marine base near San Diego. It’s all rugged mountains and parched hills. Vokey’s office is clad in wood veneer, like the manager’s office in a cheap motel. At eight o’clock on a Monday morning, he’s already getting his first legal case of the day.

Lt. Col. VOKEY: How long have you been a corporal? Unidentified Man: Since July 1st. Lt. Col. VOKEY: So a brand new corporal.

ZWERDLING: This young man came back recently from Iraq. He says he’s been drinking a lot and he got caught one night driving drunk. So now, his commanding officers planning to bust him back to private, and the corporal wants to know if he can fight it.

Lt. Col. VOKEY: I wouldn’t stand up and tell anybody, you can’t do this to me, all right? Your commanders want to hear people taking responsibility, right? I would say something like, sir, I know what I’ve done is wrong. I accept full responsibility. This will not happen again.

ZWERDLING: When the corporal leaves, Vokey says, this young man is a good Marine. Why should one stupid mistake hurt his career? And Vokey has helped thousands of Marines like that against charges from misinformation to murder. Vokey remembers the exact moments when he decided he had to become a Marine and then a Marine lawyer. He says it all began when he was 18 years old. He just started Texas A&M and he met a Marine officer.

Lt. Col. VOKEY: A man named Major Fawcett(ph). He was in his Marine uniform, the green trousers, the tan shirt, the ribbons, the rank, his hat. He looked like he was one of the best, and I wanted to be one of the best.

ZWERDLING: So Vokey signed up. He fought in the First Gulf War in 1991. And then, one day, he got called to jury duty in a court martial. Vokey says it was a routine trial. They charged a Marine with writing bad checks. And on the surface, it seemed like any trial in the civilian world. But Vokey says when the jurors began debating the case, he saw one of the biggest potential problems that can prevent troops from getting a fair trial. The senior officer on the jury tried to order everybody else how to decide the verdict.

Lt. Col. VOKEY: So we walked into the deliberation room, closed the door, sat down and he said, all right, let’s convict this guy. Let’s get out of here. And I said, whoa, whoa, sir, I think we’re supposed to talk about the evidence first. He said, oh, Jesus Christ. Well, do you think this guy is not guilty? And I said, sir, I didn’t say that. I just said I think we’re supposed to discuss the evidence first.

ZWERDLING: And Vokey says that’s when he decided to go to law school. He wanted to make sure that commanders never manipulate the system of justice. And commanders have the power to do it. For instance, the same commander who accuses a Marine might also pick the members of the jury. And that same commander might supervise the attorney who defends the Marine. But Vokey teaches his defense lawyers that they have to fight commanders with every legal weapon they’ve got. (Soundbite of music)

ZWERDLING: To make the point, Vokey shows his lawyers a scene from the hit comedy, “School of Rock.” The movie stars Jack Black. (Soundbite of movie “School of Rock”)

Mr. JACK BLACK (Actor): (As Dewey Finn) All right. Everybody, class has begun.

ZWERDLING: Black’s character asks the students, what’s the point of rock ‘n’ roll? (Soundbite of movie “School of Rock”).

Mr. BLACK: (As Dewey Finn) Who can tell me what it’s really about?

ZWERDLING: But Vokey asks his defense lawyers, what’s your job and the Marine Corps really about? (Soundbite of movie “School of Rock”)

Mr. BLACK: (As Dewey Finn) Leonard?

Mr. COLE HAWKINS (Actor): (As Leonard) Sticking it to the man?

Mr. BLACK: (As Dewey Finn) Yes.

Lt. Col. VOKEY: It’s about sticking it to the man, he says. That’s what it is. (Soundbite of movie “School of Rock”)

Mr. BLACK: (As Dewey Finn) You got to get mad at the man. Now, is everyone nice and pissed off? Unidentified Group: Yeah.

Mr. BLACK: (As Dewey Finn) Good.

Lt. Col. VOKEY: It’s a reminder that when they are defense counsel, they have one loyalty and that’s to the client. And in order to do that, if you’re going to oppose the government and not do what they say, stick it to the man. Then that’s exactly what they have to do.

ZWERDLING: Top commanders will tell you they agree. They want defense lawyers, like Vokey, to fight them.

Mr. TOM HEMINGWAY (Retired Brigadier General, U.S. Marine Corps; Pentagon Legal Adviser): We're here to support American values. And one of the things that we have in our disciplinary system, as a requirement, that the trial system be fair.

ZWERDLING: That’s a retired brigadier general. Tom Hemingway just left the Defense Department as one of its legal advisers. Hemingway says commanders realize they should never manipulate the system, because if they did…

Mr. HEMINGWAY: It would destroy morale. You want people in an all-volunteer force to serve willingly and be proud of the system. And if they think the system is unfair, then they're not going to re-enlist.

ZWERDLING: Colby Vokey says that’s precisely the problem. He’s fought too many cases in the past two years where officials have tried to sway the system. He says, listen to this troubling example.

Unidentified Male: Now to the war in Iraq. A Marine Corps squad leader and seven other Marines from California’s Camp Pendleton have been charged in connection with the massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha last year.

ZWERDLING: Vokey and his staff are defending those Marines. The prosecutors say they went on a senseless rampage. Vokey says, nonsense. The troops were fighting insurgents the way they were trained to do. Tragically, civilians got caught in the way, and now some officials want to turn those Marines into scapegoats. And there’s a bigger legal issue that bothers him. Vokey says, from the beginning of this case, officials tried to stack things in favor of the prosecution. They put together one of their biggest legal teams in recent history to go after the Marines from Haditha. And then they told Vokey to use a much smaller team to defend them.

Lt. Col. VOKEY: Absolutely. It made me very angry. It’s very frustrating. And now, we didn't have the people and the tools that we needed to adequately defend these Marines in these crimes or any of the other Marines. It really sends a message that the Marine Corps is trying to railroad these guys.

ZWERDLING: Vokey ended up winning that battle. He got permission to fly in a lot more government defense lawyers, and they’ve knocked down many of the original charges. But Vokey says there are other reasons he’s demoralized. And one of them is heartbreaking. He’s been watching Marines come back from the war to Camp Pendleton. Many have post-traumatic stress disorder or other serious mental health problems. They end up taking drugs or going AWOL. And their commanders kicked them out of the service. Vokey says commanders have to punish troops who break the rules, of course they do. But the legal system can have discipline and compassion.

Lt. Col. VOKEY:: What's upsetting is we've created the situation by sending them over there. They fought for their country. And if we broke them, we should fix them.

ZWERDLING: And Vokey says here’s the single, biggest reason why he’s disillusioned. It’s the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.

Lt. Col. VOKEY: I think it’s horrific. It’s a horrific process. It’s a horrific place. I find it very, very offensive. Just being a part of it, I think, is an embarrassment for the United States.

ZWERDLING: As you know, the government has locked up hundreds of so-called enemy combatants in Guantanamo. Vokey agreed to defend a teenager [CSHRA Note: the teenage is Omar Khadr], who had been sent there from Afghanistan. Vokey says he knew the case would be difficult, but he never dreamed the legal system would be a sham. And sham is his word. Vokey says it’s true. The detainee confessed to killing an American soldier. But he confessed after they battered him with noise and lights and shackled him in excruciating positions.

Lt. Col. VOKEY: He’s a 15-year-old kid. One particular occasion, Omar(ph) 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.

ZWERDLING: Vokey says that’s what the detainee told him. And he can’t prove it. But FBI agents reported that they saw detainees get treated in similar ways.

Lt. Col. VOKEY: Anytime you want to subvert the rule of law to the power of a government, you've got a very bad thing brewing. As an officer in the Marine Corps, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. And now, we are perpetrating something that if any other country in the world was doing it, we would likely step in and stop it.

Mr. HEMINGWAY: A defense counsel make a lot of assertions, which they’re entitled to make. And they’re doing what defense counsel do.

ZWERDLING: That’s the retired brigadier general again, Tom Hemingway. Until a few months ago, Hemingway was the top lawyer who advised the government how they should handle detainees. He says they’ve investigated their complaints, including from Vokey’s client.

Mr. HEMINGWAY: And we have found absolutely nothing to substantiate that.

Lt. Col. VOKEY: I’m assuming that the only evidence they could get would be the guards admitting it, or other people saying, oh, we saw the guards do that, right?

ZWERDLING: Well, how else would you prove it?

Lt. Col. VOKEY: I know of no one in uniform who signed up to embarrass the United States of America by running a system that doesn't meet what we consider to be appropriate standards. (Soundbite of soldiers on formation)

ZWERDLING: I spent three days with Colby Vokey. And I kept asking him, okay, you say the military system of justice isn’t working the way it should. So exactly who is responsible? And he kept skirting the question. But finally, Vokey got up and went to his bookshelf and he pulled out the Manual for Courts- Martial. He pointed to Article 88. "Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the president, vice president, Congress, and a list of other officials shall be punished as a court martial may direct." Vokey said, "I need to be careful". Still, he speaks his mind more than most officers. So Vokey wasn’t totally surprised when his boss summoned him to her office recently near the U.S. Capitol. And she fired him as chief of defense counsels of the Western United States. Retired officers like Jane Siegel say Vokey’s firing sent a chilling message that some officials don't want military lawyers to defend the Constitution too vigorously.

Ms. SIEGEL: I believe that Colby Vokey was pulled out of his position because he's doing too good a job. And I think that the people in Washington, D.C. don't like that.

ZWERDLING: That’s a very troubling statement.

Ms. SIEGEL: It’s an unbelievably troubling statement.

ZWERDLING: We asked officials at the Marine Corps to talk about the flap. They said, no. Siegel and other respected lawyers who’ve worked at the Corps raised a huge stink about Vokey’s firing. And the Marine Corps has retreated. They put Vokey back in his job. But officials know he won’t be there for long. Vokey says he’ll leave the U.S. Marine Corps on May 1st next year. He says he still wants to stick it to the man, maybe at some law firm back home in Texas. Only this time, he won’t wear a uniform. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You’re listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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