JAGs take 'battle' against terrorism to Iraqi court

  • Published
  • By Maj. Darrin K. Johns
  • 95th Air Base Wing Judge Advocate Staff
When I passed the bar exam in July 2003, I never imagined I would present criminal cases in an Iraqi court. Although I was already an Air Force officer with almost nine years of military experience, I thought at most I might have to deploy to Iraq to work in a legal office taking care of the needs of our deployed troops. But in October I got the call. I was told I was needed in Iraq to present cases in front of Iraqi judges against suspected terrorists and insurgents. Oh, and I was told to be there only two days after I was notified!

As many of you know, deployments never come at an opportune time. The Air Force had just transferred my family from Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, to Edwards in July 2005. My daughter Kathryn was born shortly thereafter, and less than two months later I was on my way to the Middle East. I had to leave my wife, ten-year-old daughter, 20-month-old son, and my barely two-month-old daughter in a new place while I answered the call to duty.

When I arrived in Iraq, I was immediately put to work.

As you might expect, the Iraqi legal system is very different from our own. It is based on the Napoleonic Code. Judges do the investigating to find the truth.

Our job was to review case files to determine if they contained sufficient evidence to proceed to trial. We verified photos, sketches and made sure there were two witnesses who could testify about what happened -- witnesses who had to be exact. Basically, our team was involved at the investigative judge level.

As for our trips to the courthouse ... they were quite an event. We suited up in full "battle rattle" -- body armor, sidearm, helmet, gloves, and blast glasses for eye protection. We then got into our armored vehicles and headed to the courthouse in the "Red Zone."

Once we arrived, we went to the judge's office with our interpreter and presented our evidence. Then, the accused was brought up to the judge's chamber, his handcuffs removed, and he was permitted to sit, listen and observe the witnesses' sworn testimony. We were there officially as representatives of the United States. The judge asked all the questions of the witnesses through the interpreter. Usually after he was finished, he asked us if we had anything we wanted to ask the witnesses. During the questioning, the judge dictated a summary of the witness testimony to his clerk who wrote the summary down.

Several weeks after the investigative hearing, the judge submitted his report and recommendation to a three-judge panel that brought the accused back, questioned him, heard the arguments from the Iraqi prosecution and the defense, and then rendered their verdict. If the verdict was guilty, then the judges pronounced sentence at that time.

Witness testimony was usually not taken at this stage of the proceedings. The three-judge panel relied on the summarized statements submitted by the investigative judge.

All in all, I found the Iraqi judges were very committed to the criminal justice system in the new Iraq. One judge I worked with received death threats constantly. The uncle of another judge I worked with was murdered shortly before I left. Both judges continued their duties professionally.

Serving in Iraq was definitely a unique experience. Where else do you wear full body armor to court, listen to small arms fire, and hear the "vvvvvvvvvvvvvmmph ... BOOM!" of a rocket hitting nearby? I never could have imagined that passing the bar would allow me, an Air Force JAG, to take murderers, terrorists and insurgents out of the fight and help the Iraqi justice system restore peace and freedom. This call to duty may not have come at an opportune time, but what an opportunity!