By Christina Hughes Babb
Published September 23, 2010 by Advocate Magazine.
To view the original article, click here.
Colby Vokey won’t keep his mouth shut. The defense attorney built a national reputation by demanding fair representation for U.S. soldiers accused of war crimes, and the world took notice when he spoke out against the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
“Colby Vokey is a guy who always did the right thing, even if it upset everybody,” retired Col. Jane Siegel says.
For his efforts, Vokey lost his job in the military (he was later reinstated), and he has been profiled by national media outlets, including National Public Radio and the Dallas Morning News.
Today, as a civilian lawyer, Vokey handles cases involving soldiers with legal troubles. Among Vokey’s high-profile clients is Frank Wuterich, a staff sergeant accused in 2005 of leading Marines in a deadly attack on civilians in Haditha, Iraq, an incident widely referred to as the “Haditha Massacre”.
Vokey is accustomed to the spotlight. A Marine for more than 20 years, the 1983 Lake Highlands High School graduate served for several years as chief of the Marine Corps’ defense lawyers in the western United States, where he supervised or tried hundreds of military cases.
Around the same time he originally was appointed to the Haditha case — he continues to represent Wuterich as a civilian — Vokey garnered national media attention for speaking out against the treatment of accused enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay prison.
Some say this outspokenness was at odds with his loyalty to the military and administration. Vokey says he just did his job.
“I am going to speak out when I see an injustice. My loyalty is to the U.S. Constitution,” he says. “Guantanamo is like nothing I had ever seen — there was serious injustice, and I couldn’t simply sit on the sidelines and let it happen.”
Vokey became familiar with Guantanamo Bay in 2005, when he was appointed defense lawyer to Omar Ahmed Khadr, a 15-year-old accused of war crimes and terrorism. He says he was unprepared for what came next.
“My primary job was defending servicemen; now I am appointed to defend this young man in Guantanamo. It is a lot different from any other assignment — they are in many ways at opposite ends of the spectrum.”
When Vokey arrived in Guantanamo, he says, he concluded he had been set up for failure by the military.
“The court process [at Guantanamo] was designed for conviction. It was one of the most offensive legal processes I’ve ever been connected with. Rules of evidence [were] biased and unfair. Due process was an American concept that did not apply there … officials invented crimes, changed rules as they went along and lied. They ordered me to defend the guy but took action to make sure I couldn’t defend him.”
What bothered Vokey most about the treatment of Guantanamo detainees, he says, was the effect those actions will have on the future safety of American soldiers.
“Other countries will follow our lead. No, Al-Qaeda doesn’t follow rules, but countries that imprison Americans … we can expect Americans to get the same kind of treatment [that the military has given prisoners at Guantanamo].”
For the record, the government always denied Vokey’s claims about Guantanamo and has declined comment to the media.
Vokey also saw injustice in the military’s prosecution of servicemen accused of crimes. For example, he says he was angry the military assembled a large team to prosecute the Marines accused in Haditha, but allowed for only a small defense of the soldiers.
“In cases of military defense, we are talking about men who have volunteered to lay down their lives for others. We hold them up as heroes, but once they are charged with a crime, it can feel like we throw them under the bus. But they deserve the highest quality defense … military justice can be harsh, unfair and infuriating.”
Vokey’s actions and words weren’t popular with the administration, Siegel says.
“In the military, everyone is expected to be told what to do, to do it and ask no questions about it,” she says. “But Colby put his heart and soul into his job, defending clients zealously, and that caused conflict between the military hierarchy and the defense counsel.”
Once Vokey decided the Gitmo system was unfair, he “went nuts,” she says.
“And I mean that in the best possible way. He went out of his way to change things, and he never gave up.
“He has been physically booted off Gitmo; he was passed over for promotions; he had to retire, essentially in order to avoid punishment. He was a lieutenant colonel, which is a high rank, but those above him were so angry that he would not go with the flow.”
A veteran of Desert Storm, Vokey says he always wanted to serve his country, and later the law, but he didn’t seek and doesn’t particularly enjoy the limelight his career has generated.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I expect that perfect storm of high-visibility military cases. I picked a job where I could teach others and spend time in the courtroom — I wasn’t expecting it.
“The question seemed to be: How can I defend our military men and defend accused terrorists? The bottom line is that I support the U.S. Constitution, and justice is not for certain people but everyone.”
Today as a partner at Fitzpatrick Hagood and Smith, Vokey defends military personnel accused of murder, manslaughter or major offenses, but he also fights for the rights of those whose crimes, such as drug possession, might have been a result of mental trauma of war.
“If they are dishonorably discharged, they can lose their [military] benefits. We owe it to them to get them a good defense.”
Though he’s still a hardworking and sometimes polarizing figure, Vokey says his life has been less stressful since he resigned from the Marines in 2007.
Also grateful that he works at a private firm, he says, are his wife Cindy Arrington Vokey, also an LHHS graduate, and sons Connor, 16, Camden, 11, and daughter Christina, 21.
“I love the Marine Corps,” he says, “but today I can defend clients zealously without the threat of gag orders, job loss and loss of my retirement [funds]. For that, we are all a little happier.”