by Christopher D. Johnson
Some of my fondest memories of growing up were watching TV shows and movies, where - more often than not - the "good guy" catches the "bad guy" and brings him to justice. From Adam-12, Gunsmoke
, and Perry Mason
to all the John Wayne movies, I learned about honor, duty, and justice. My father, a Marine colonel, also had something to do with instilling those virtues in me.
After I earned my JD from Tulane Law School in 1982, I became a U.S. Navy JAG and tried dozens of jury trials during my seven years of service. My cases covered everything from murder, rape, and kidnapping to the more sedate crimes of espionage and treason. The trials were in diverse places - from a courtroom on a sprawling naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, to a tiny cabin on an attack submarine off the coast of Israel.
My last big trial was also my most memorable one. I was in Guantanamo Bay defending one of ten Marines charged with conspiracy to commit murder and attempted murder that involved a notorious hazing incident, known as a "code red," which I learned was a technique used to "rehabilitate" a so-called "bad Marine."
During a private interview with the commanding officer of the Marine base, whom I'll call Colonel X, I enquired whether a "code red" was an "accepted practice at Gitmo." He told me, "It was not officially sanctioned, but that sometimes 'good' Marines take matters into their own hands." This revelation made clear that Colonel X had serious exposure himself. His decision to allow hazing had encouraged this incident and, in the military, the commanding officer is ultimately responsible for the behavior of his subordinates.
The following day, with witnesses present, Colonel X denied our prior conversation, insisting that he had never heard of a code red. Shocked by this lie, I threatened to personally "write him up" if he didn't tell the truth.
"I won't allow your untruthful behavior to dishonor the uniform that my father, who fought in three wars, wore honorably for 32 years," I informed him.
Colonel X threatened to have me arrested for insubordination. I walked out the door and proceeded to write up a criminal charge sheet, even though my superiors warned me that this would be career suicide. For me, though, there was only one choice. My client, a Marine who would give his life for his country, deserved someone who would truly stand up for him.
A week later three things occurred: Colonel X was relieved of his command; the ten Marines were offered administrative discharges, which is akin to being fired and losing military benefits, such as education grants and loan guarantees for housing (not a bad option when faced with a possible sentence of life imprisonment); and everyone was released from the brig.
My client was adamant about making the Marine Corps his career. He also maintained that he was only following his colonel's orders, so he wanted go to trial and fight the charges rather than resign in disgrace. At his preliminary hearing, the military judge heard all the facts and recommended a charge of aggravated assault. My client, one of three Marines who went to trial, was convicted by a military jury only of a misdemeanor, simple assault, and sentenced to "no punishment." He eventually became a decorated drill sergeant at Parris Island, South Carolina, the famed Marine recruit-training depot.
This case may seem vaguely familiar, because it was the inspiration for A Few Good Men
, the movie starring Jack Nicholson in the colonel's role. Although writing up the colonel resulted in my transfer to the "claims section," where I used my significant trial experience to review claims for damage to household furniture, I did what I felt was right.
What's more, I learned a lesson from that Guantanamo trial that has stayed with me throughout my entire career: When you do the right thing for the right reason, you will never have any regrets.
Christopher D. Johnson is a founding partner of Johnson & Pham, an intellectual property rights firm based in Woodland Hills that specializes in anti-piracy cases.