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For lawyer, trial was tribulation

The Nation

Guantanamo prosecutor who quit had 'grave misgivings' about fairness

October 12, 2008|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Darrel J. Vandeveld was in despair. The hard-nosed lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, a self-described conformist praised by his superiors for his bravery in Iraq, had lost faith in the Guantanamo Bay war crimes tribunals in which he was a prosecutor.

His work was top secret, making it impossible to talk to family or friends. So the devout Catholic -- working away from home -- contacted a priest online.

Even if he had no doubt about the guilt of the accused, he wrote in an August e-mail, "I am beginning to have grave misgivings about what I am doing, and what we are doing as a country. . . .

"I no longer want to participate in the system, but I lack the courage to quit. I am married, with children, and not only will they suffer, I'll lose a lot of friends."

Two days later, he took the unusual step of reaching out for advice from his opposing counsel, a military defense lawyer.

"How do I get myself out of this office?" Vandeveld asked Major David J.R. Frakt of the Air Force Reserve, who represented the young Afghan Vandeveld was prosecuting for an attack on U.S. soldiers -- despite Vandeveld's doubts about whether Mohammed Jawad would get a fair trial. Vandeveld said he was seeking a "practical way of extricating myself from this mess."

Last month, Vandeveld did just that, resigning from the Jawad case, the military commissions overall and, ultimately, active military duty. In doing so, he has become even more of a central figure in the "mess" he considers Guantanamo to be.

Vandeveld is at least the fourth prosecutor to resign under protest. Questions about the fairness of the tribunals have been raised by the very people charged with conducting them, according to legal experts, human rights observers and current and former military officials.

Vandeveld's claims are particularly explosive.

In a declaration and subsequent testimony, he said the U.S. government was not providing defense lawyers with the evidence it had against their clients, including exculpatory information -- material considered helpful to the defense.

Saying that the accused enemy combatants were more likely to be wrongly convicted without that evidence, Vandeveld testified that he went from being a "true believer to someone who felt truly deceived" by the tribunals. The system in place at the U.S. military facility in Cuba, he wrote in his declaration, was so dysfunctional that it deprived "the accused of basic due process and subject[ed] the well-intentioned prosecutor to claims of ethical misconduct."

Army Col. Lawrence J. Morris, the chief prosecutor and Vandeveld's boss, said the Office of Military Commissions provides "every scrap of paper and information" to the defense. Morris said that Vandeveld was disgruntled because his commanding officers disagreed with some of his legal tactics and that he "never once" raised substantive concerns.

Morris said last week that he had no idea why Vandeveld had become so antagonistic toward the tribunal process, adding that the lieutenant colonel's outspokenness angered him because it was unfair and was a "broad blast at some very ethical and hardworking people whose performances are being smudged groundlessly."

Vandeveld, who was prosecuting seven tribunal cases -- nearly a third of pending cases -- has declined to be interviewed about the particulars of the Jawad case. But he did engage in a series of e-mails with The Times about his general concerns, before being "reminded" last week that he could not talk to the press until his release from active duty was final. In the future, he said, he plans to speak out.

"I don't know how else the creeping rot of the commissions and the politics that fostered and continued to surround them could be exposed to the curative powers of the sunlight," he said. "I care not for myself; our enemies deserve nothing less than what we would expect from them were the situations reversed. More than anything, I hope we can rediscover some of our American values."

Some tribunal defense lawyers are preparing to call Vandeveld as a witness, saying that his claims of systemic problems at Guantanamo, if true, could alter the outcome of every pending case there -- and force the turnover of long-sought information on coercive interrogation tactics and other controversial measures used against their clients in the war on terrorism.

For years, defense lawyers and human rights organizations have raised similar concerns in individual cases. "But we never had anyone on the inside who could validate those claims," said Michael J. Berrigan, the deputy chief defense counsel for the commissions.

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Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Vandeveld led a relatively placid life outside Erie, Pa., with his wife and four children. He worked as a senior deputy state attorney general in charge of consumer protection in the region, and he served on his local school board in Millcreek Township.

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