Sunday, March 25, 2012

Thoughts on Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ Attorney – John Henry Browne

image by Steve Aufrecht
I got into blogging to cover the Federal corruption trial of former Alaska State Representative Vic Kohring.  Kohring's attorney in that October 2007 trial was John Henry Browne.  He is the high-profile Seattle-based attorney now representing U.S. Army Staff Sgt, Robert Bales. The sergeant was charged Friday with the killing of 17 Afghan civilians on the night of March 11-12.

During the Kohring trial, four and a half years ago, I got to meet and know John Henry Browne.  He was fairly well known in the Pacific Northwest for having represented serial killer Ted Bundy, and other cases.

At the time of the Kohring trial, I was reluctant to come to deep conclusions about Browne.  The premise of my trial blog was this:
Two longtime friends from the Mat-Su Valley with opposing views of the trial and its defendant share their thoughts. Fred James perceives Vic Kohring as a victim of a prosecution gone awry. Philip Munger has been predicting a demise for Kohring for years as the Wasilla anti-government politician attempted to make too many increasingly unconnected ends and motives meet.
The concept was inspired by firedoglake's coverage of the Scooter Libby trial, which was an historic approach to trial writing.  I hoped that with Fred and me exchanging differing views, we would cover new ground too.

Others who attended the trial blogged about it too, most notably retired University of Alaska Anchorage public policy professor, Steve Aufrecht.  Today, at his outstanding blog, What Do I Know? Steve has revisited his thoughts on Browne at the time of the Kohring trial:
John Henry Browne, the attorney now representing Robert Bales, the soldier accused of massacring 17 Afghan civilians, spent several weeks in Anchorage in 2007, representing the third state legislator to go on trial for corruption here, Vic Kohring.  I blogged that trial and so I got to watch him in action.  Of the three trials, he was the only attorney who seemed to attract almost as much attention as his client.

I have comments about Browne throughout the Kohring posts, but I've pulled out a few here that may give some insight into this attorney.  Or not.

On my first encounter in court October 22, 2007:
John Henry Browne

For me the big unknown was the defense attorney. When I walked in, I saw him from behind and thought he was younger until he turned and faced the gallery. He was wearing what looked like an expensive light grey suit with just a touch of green. His shirt was just barely pink. The prosecutors, in comparison, were in dark, dark grey to black suits with white shirts, except for Mr. Goeke who had a beige shirt. Even Agent Mary Beth Kepner [Thanks, Steve, I was getting tired when I did that] had on a grey suit. And Mr. Browne's hair also looked expensive - basically brown with what would have been called surfer blond streaks where I grew up near Venice Beach. OK, I know what some of you are thinking. But this is not intended as a fashion evaluation of the attorneys. I do think, however, that the dress does tell us something about people. Browne very definitely pays attention to how he looks. He also has trouble talking without moving. If his arms aren't moving, or his hands, then his fingers are moving. A few times I could even see the muscles in his back moving through his jacket. And this was just very low key questions to the jury.

His voice is radio quality deep and his intonation is precise, more articulated than most American speakers naturally talk. Perhaps he's done some acting or had other voice coaching.

When he asked questions of the jurors, or even when he didn't, he would say, "Good morning" in the same exact tone which sounded warm and interested the first time, but after hearing it repeated precisely many times, it began to sound canned. For two jurors, he said something like, "Your comments were much more extensive than the other jurors" which I thought sounded like calculated flattery, and which caused Prosecutor Botinni [Bottini] to object to the "unnecessary editorial comments" about juror performance. The judge concurred.

He also addressed the court twice, between jurors, with two questions that I thought seemed inappropriate. The first time he wanted to know about jurors who came from outside of Anchorage - who paid for them? (The court pays their airfare and hotel, but they don't go back for weekends the judge replied.) The second question was whether the jurors came from all of Alaska. The judge explained that they only came from the Anchorage district, which was a large district, stretching from Cordova to the Aleutians. It just seemed to me that these were curiosity items, that I would have written down and checked on later. Or, as the Outside defense attorney, I would have found out before the trial. And being an Outside attorney - the local attorney Wayne Anthony Ross was not there today [and I don't think ever was in court] - he wouldn't understand the implications of what local talk show hosts the jurors said they listened to.

Overall, his behavior reinforced the impression I've gotten in the pretrial press coverage. This is the Seattle attorney who is coming to the boondocks to try a case. If that really is the way he's thinking, I suspect he's in for a big surprise.  Judge Sedwick has run very tight, but fair, trials. His excusing of the full time student today is an example of his practical understanding of what makes sense and what doesn't. The prosecution has done an overwhelming amount of work and have been extremely well prepared. The teams at the previous two trials were one local attorney and one from the DC based Public Integrity Section. These guys do their homework. The pairing for this trial is Joe Botinni[Bottini], who's been in the Anchorage US Attorney Office for many years, and Edward P. Sullivan from DC. On the other hand, it does seem that the taped evidence is likely to be not as damaging as in the other cases, and that Kohring might appear to have been less calculating than Kott or Anderson in working out ways to get paid. We will see.
By the next day, I'd figured out who Browne reminded me of.  I wrote a post titled, Is John Henry Browne Really Eddie Haskell 50 Years Later?
Eddie Haskell, eh?

I've been trying to get in touch with Browne to question him about PFC Bradley Manning's treatment compared to what he's come to know about the detention of SSgt. Bales.  Browne has succeeded in getting his client into the news this past week.  He's already  putting the U.S. Army and the Afghan War on trial:
The lawyer for the Army staff sergeant suspected of killing 16 Afghan civilians questioned Tuesday the quality of the evidence against his client and said he planned to travel to Afghanistan to gather his own.

John Henry Browne said he met with Robert Bales for 11 hours over two days at Fort Leavenworth, where his client is being held. He added that there was still a lot he didn't know about the March 11 shootings.

"I don't know about the evidence in this case. I don't know that the government is going to prove much. There's no forensic evidence. There's no confessions," Browne said outside his hotel near the post.

"I'm certainly not saying that we're not taking responsibility for this in the right way, at the right time. But for now, I'm interested in what the evidence is," he said. "It's not like a crime scene in the United States."

Browne said there were legal, social and political issues linked to the case and how it will be prosecuted. "The war's on trial. I'm not putting the war on trial," he said. "I'm not putting the war on trial, but the war is on trial."
NPR, discussing Bales' options on Friday:
SOLIS: The defense doesn't have a lot of roads to travel right now, and so what they're going to do is blame it on the mental state, which probably has some validity, and blame it on the Army.

BOWMAN: Blame it on the Army for sending Sergeant Bales on four combat tours, which took a toll.

SOLIS: And that's because of the three prior tours that the suspect had in Iraq, the fact that he had been wounded a couple of times, that he objected to being sent back to Afghanistan for a fourth tour. So I think that this is the type of case which is tailor-made for a lack of mental responsibility defense.

BOWMAN: But military lawyer Neal Puckett points out that many soldiers have served multiple combat tours and suffered from PTSD.

PUCKETT: You can't totally displace responsibility on to the Army simply because you say well, he has TBI and/or he has PTSD.

BOWMAN: There's one other defense that may not be an option for Sgt. Bales, that his life was in danger. Neal Puckett defended a Marine accused of shooting civilians at Haditha, Iraq in 2005 after an attack on his squad. The most serious charges were dropped after Puckett argued the Marine felt he was threatened.
Browne was probably sought out by Bales' family, as Browne works out of a Seattle office, and the trial will be held in the lower Puget Sound area of Ft. Lewis, where Bales' unit has its home base.  His family have put together a legal defense fund:
Robert Bales' wife, Karilyn Bales, has started a fund to raise money to help pay his legal costs. Contributions, not tax-deductible, can be sent to the Staff Sergeant Robert Bales Legal Defense Fund, P.O. Box 2774, Seattle, WA 98111.
I'm not sure I totally buy into Bales having been unaccompanied or unassisted in his night-time journeys.  He supposedly left the base, walked to one village, came back, walked to another village and came back a second time - by himself.  Here's a map I created, superimposing a McClatchy graphic onto my own annotated image from Google Earth:

Those distances he would have had to walk, totaling over 7 kilometers, are as the crow flies.  Sgt. Bales appears to be fit, but .......

Justin Raimondo is still questioning the veracity of the lone actor scenario.  And he also feels that the way this is playing out, fiction or not, shows up many flaws in our Afghan end-game:
All of this has led to an outcry in Afghanistan, where the local are saying this was an organized revenge killing rather than Sergeant Psycho on a rampage. Which raises an intriguing question: organized by whom?

It seems to me there are two possibilities:

1) This was the result of a "rogue" group of soldiers acting on their own, motivated by the previous IED attack. Reports that Bales was drinking with a group of other soldiers the night of the massacre conjure images of a late-night venting climaxed by a senseless act of terror.

2) It was a "night raid" gone horribly wrong. This is suggested by the fact that the "official" story of what happened that night limns these night raids to a tee, except for the number of military personnel involved. And Karzai has a point: it is certainly possible Bales went to two residences, killed 16 women and children, and then gathered up the bodies and burned them in the space of a couple of hours, with no assistance from anyone — but how likely is it? About as likely as Bales’s claim not to remember anything of that night.

What is striking is how seamlessly these two scenarios blend into each other: even if this heinous crime was carried out by a "rogue" group of soldiers, how different is it from those night raids where they are acting under orders? The direct threats issued to the villagers, however, points to the possibility that they were acting with the knowledge of at least some higher-ups, who must have authorized the round-up, the use of a translator, and even the participation of the Afghan army.

What is worrying is that the numerous reports coming out of Afghanistan of rampant war crimes committed by "rogue" soldiers – "kill teams" – indicates a complete breakdown of the US chain of command. At the top of the command structure, the grand strategiststheoreticians are constructing elaborate theories of counterinsurgency warfare designed to win over the populace and deny the Taliban a victory. However, by the time "clear, hold, and build" trickles down to the ranks in the field, it becomes "clear, hold, and kill."
It will be some time before SSgt. Bales goes to trail.  Certainly not this year, if the slowness of the Bradley Manning case progress is any indicator.  Watch for John Henry Browne to do everything he can to keep his client's case in the news, and to tie any new American military misconduct into his developing narrative against the war:  "I'm not putting the war on trial, but the war is on trial."