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Iraq Prison Case Attorney a Military Law Expert

The former Marine representing an Army specialist is expected to try to turn photos that appear to show abuse into defense tools.

May 15, 2004|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — The jailers in Brazoria County, Texas, had gone mad, prosecutors said. During a 1996 shakedown, prisoners were zapped with a stun gun, bashed into walls so hard that their teeth fell out and kicked as they tried to crawl to safety. It was all on videotape, and the case against four prison guards was, supposedly, a slam-dunk.

Houston criminal defense attorney Guy L. Womack -- a former Marine lieutenant colonel who still wears his hair in a buzz cut and holds his head as high as he did when in uniform, didn't see it that way.

In the end, neither did the justice system. A federal judge dismissed the indictment against one of Womack's clients, and a second was acquitted at trial.

Few lawyers have devoted more time to understanding the culture of the military, the culture of prisons and, in particular, the fine line that guards and interrogators must walk in the course of duty. When Womack was retained last week to represent Army Spc. Charles A. Graner Jr., one of the military police officers at the center of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, few here could think of a better person for the job -- including some of his former clients.

"It was a very stressful time," said David Cisneros, 43, the former dog-handling prison guard from Brazoria County who could have faced a a 10-year-prison term if he had been convicted. He now is a police officer in Lake Jackson, Texas. "But I was very confident going [to trial] with him," Cisneros said. "He is a professional. He has ethics and morals and does his research.

"And he knows what you can and cannot do inside of prisons and jails."

That background -- Womack has vast experience in military law and once taught a class in "interrogation techniques" at Camp Lejeune, N.C., according to his website -- already has helped form the background of Graner's defense.

The Army announced Friday it had filed seven criminal charges against Graner, including conspiracy to maltreat detainees, assaulting detainees and obstruction of justice. He also is charged with adultery, based on accusations that he had sex with fellow guard Pfc. Lynndie England while she was married. Graner is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday. No trial date has been set.

In the Brazoria County case, Womack used the videotape to turn the prosecution of the prison guards on its ear. The tape revealed an inmate screaming when a guard dog attacked. But Womack focused on an aspect of the tape that had been overlooked -- that Cisneros was pulling on the leash, an action that could be construed as trying to keep the dog in check.

Similarly in Iraq, where Womack is headed in two weeks, he is expected to turn what would seem to be the best evidence against his client -- photographs that appear to show widespread abuse -- into a tool for the defense. Womack, who could not be reached for comment Friday, has said repeatedly this week in televised interviews that he thinks low-ranking military officers like Graner were merely carrying out the bidding of their superiors.

"Right or wrong, what they did or did not do, [Womack] has the background to really understand the issue: Were they taking orders?" said Shirley Cornelius, an appellate lawyer with the Harris County, Texas, district attorney's office who has faced Womack in the courtroom.

"Once you are a U.S. soldier, the U.S. owns you. They don't really like free-thinkers," Cornelius said. "But there is a point when you have to accept personal responsibility, even in the military. He will have a good understanding of that in whatever representation they need, and he will do it in a very dignified way. I can't think of anyone better than Guy. He just has so much credibility walking in the room."

Womack, 51, an Atlanta native, father of three, former prosecutor and a firearms instructor for the National Rifle Assn., has lost his share of cases.

In 1999, one of his clients was executed by the state. Richard Wayne Smith, 32, had been convicted in the 1992 murder of a Houston teacher who had been moonlighting as a convenience store clerk.

But even in that case, Cornelius said, Womack was tenacious to the end -- and was upset when Smith demanded to drop his appeals and proceed with the execution rather than be killed by a case of hepatitis C diagnosed as terminal.

In the cases colleagues could recall that seem to have the most parallels to the Iraq prison abuse scandal, Womack often has emerged victorious.

In 2002, he represented Sgt. Mark Walker, who was charged with two counts of negligent homicide after running over two Korean girls with a military vehicle. At an Army court-martial, Walker was acquitted after Womack used a video to demonstrate that the sergeant could not have avoided the accident.

"The available number of civilian defense counsel who have military experience is small," said Richard O. Ely II, an assistant federal public defender in Houston who has known and worked with Womack for more than seven years.

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