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Cases Draw Cavalcade of Military Justice Stars

Courts-Martial Bar Is Being Stretched Thin By Incidents Involving Pendleton Marines

Daily Journal - Jun 26, 2006
By Don J. DeBenedictis, Daily Journal Staff Writer

SANTA ANA - Even before the military announced murder charges Wednesday, the seven Marines and one Navy corpsman suspected of killing an Iraqi man near Hamandiya in April had hired private defense attorneys to work with their appointed military lawyers.

Many of those civilian defenders come from the small group of ex-Judge Advocate General officers locally who handle military criminal work.

"I would say in Southern California there is a cohort of somewhere under 10 who do this stuff," said David M. Brahms, a retired Marine general now practicing in Carlsbad.

Those lawyers, as well as other specialists across the country, are being called into service by the Hamandiya case and by the ongoing investigations into the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians near Haditha. Both involve Marines from Camp Pendleton.

But the two large cases already are straining the resources of the local courts-martial bar, both civilian and military. Besides the eight men facing charges in connection with the Hamandiya case, roughly 15 Marines are under investigation in the Haditha case, according to Tustin lawyer Kevin B. McDermott, who represents Capt. Lucas McConnell, the company commander of the unit suspected in those killings.

In the Hamandiya matter, the military Wednesday charged the eight troops with premeditated murder for allegedly taking the Iraqi man from his home in April, tying him up by the side of a road and shooting him repeatedly. They then sought to cover up the crime by making it appear the man was armed and attempting to plant explosives, according to the charges.

In the Haditha matter, the military is investigating charges that in November members of a Marine unit killed up to two dozen unarmed Iraqis in and outside their homes over a three-hour period after a roadside bomb killed one of the troops. No charges have been filed yet.

San Diego lawyer Jane L. Siegel, a retired Marine colonel and judge, said she was contacted by parents of two people involved in Haditha but declined because she was already representing Pfc. John J. Jodka in the Hamandiya murder case. Siegel is co-counsel for Jodka with San Diego lawyer Joseph N. Casas and with an appointed Marine lawyer from 29 Palms.

"Many of us felt these cases would end up overlapping at some point," Siegel said.

On the other hand, two sources said Brahms is co-counsel for one of the Haditha suspects, in addition to representing Lance Cpl. Lawrence G. Pennington in the Hamandiya case. Brahms, a former chief of the Marine JAG division and the technical adviser on the film "A Few Good Men," declined to discuss Haditha.

Locally, Joseph H. Low IV of Long Beach and Jeremiah Sullivan III of San Diego also represent Hamandiya defendants.

But qualified local lawyers are scarce enough that several Hamandiya accused or their families have looked elsewhere. According to Siegel and published reports, attorneys from Wisconsin, Alabama, Georgia and Florida also represent defendants.

"I think you're going to see a cavalcade of military-justice stars as these two cases advance," Siegel said. "They're going to [draw] all the real experts to one place at one time."

McDermott said seeking out experts nationally is a good idea. Some local lawyers are just too inexperienced, he said.

"There are people out there [locally] who do military cases, but you sure as hell wouldn't refer some of these cases to them," he said.

Marine Corps officials also have begun seeking volunteers from among JAG reservists to help prosecute and defend the cases.

In fact, the lone prosecutor so far assigned to the Hamandiya case, Lt. Col. Sean Sullivan, is a recently activated reservist from Chicago.

"The number of lawyers [the Marines] have in place is insufficient" for the two big Camp Pendleton cases, said Neal A. Puckett, a prominent military defender outside Washington, D.C. "Some reservists are being activated to work on both sides."

Puckett has a client in the Haditha case, but not Hamandiya.

Early this month, an official with the Marine JAG reserves system sent out an e-mail seeking possible volunteers to go back on active duty. "We have all heard the news and read the papers about the incident in Haditha [sp] and I want to be a step ahead if we get asked to support. So if you would be available to do a tour of active duty ranging from 12-18 months (estimate) and have a strong background in Defense/Trial please reply," the e-mail said.

Additional military lawyers are needed because every service member accused of a crime has a right to an appointed, or "detailed" defense counsel. The accused may also request a particular military defender, known as an Individual Military Counsel, who typically would replace the detailed counsel.

Those facing courts martial also may hire outside, civilian defense attorneys, who typically take over as lead counsel.

And if the seven Marines and one Navy corpsman accused of premeditated murder at Hamandiya end up facing the death penalty, they could merit additional counsel, according to Brahms and Puckett.

But Brahms said the Marines put some effort into ensuring enough lawyers were available before the Hamandiya charges were brought. "Among the uniform group, there's been a lot of planning and a lot of thought to ensure there are sufficient personnel available," he said.

The head of the Marine Corps defense counsel operation, Col. Carol K. Joyce of Washington, D.C., and the head of the West Coast operation, Lt. Col. Colby C. Vokey, did not return calls seeking comment Friday.

"Joseph, Thank you for your assistance. Your understanding compassion & incredible expertise are admired & appreciated. I will be referring any of my clients who require legal help to you."
- M.D.