Law-and-order Airmen see justice served in Iraq

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Larry A. Schneck
  • 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force - Iraq Public Affairs
Airmen assigned to the U.S. Forces-Iraq Law and Order Task Force at Joint Security Station Shield here support a justice system operating differently from U.S. courts.

For paralegal Airmen who learned the practice of law within codified regulations, statutes and legal precedence, it is truly unique to start working in a legal system influenced by the Muslim culture.

"There's no training for this job," said Tech. Sgt. Diana Wilkins, a LAOTF paralegal deployed from Buckley Air Force Base, Colo. "It's all on-the-job training."

The other Air Force paralegal Airman here agreed.

"I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do," said Tech. Sgt. Aaron Holmes, a paralegal deployed from Grand Forks AFB, N.D. "All I knew before I arrived was I would assist the Iraqis in establishing the rule of law."

A typical case involves a detainee picked up by Iraqi security forces or U.S. forces prior to Dec. 31, 2008, when United Nations Security Council Resolution 1790 expired. The resolution gave the U.S. the legal authority to intern enemy combatants. Since its expiration, the number of detainees in U.S. custody dropped from more than 20,000 to about 200.

Sergeant Wilkins spends her days reviewing stacks of paperwork and electronic data files. She pieces together case files on detainees who are suspected of committing acts of terrorism.

"It's fulfilling to know we're putting away the bad guys," she said. "I review the cases to see which ones might involve U.S. service members wounded or killed."

The cases then are transported to the Central Criminal Court of Iraq, the equivalent of a U.S. federal court.

"We have to fight Baghdad city traffic to hand carry files to the Iraqi court," Sergeant Wilkins said. "We turn over the complete case file to help prepare the detainee for trial in front of an Iraqi judge. Our focus is to facilitate the prosecution of Iraqi cases, assisting the investigators."

The LAOTF team of Airmen, Sailors and Soldiers maintains the physical evidence along with the written case files; however, in the Iraqi criminal justice system witnesses are more important than evidence before a judge.

"What we're doing is very atypical work for an Air Force paralegal," Sergeant Holmes said. "Their legal system is complex. Islamic law requires two sufficient witnesses for each case to go before a panel of trial judges."

The paralegals frequently partner with Iraqi federal judges to determine whether the evidence collected is sufficient for a detainee to remain in custody pending an investigation and future criminal trial. The judges review the evidence against an accused person, but consistently ask for either witness statements or live witness testimony, underscoring what Sergeant Holmes and Sergeant Wilkins learned doing the job in Iraq.

"Our team of lawyers and paralegals are working hard to help the Iraqis migrate to more modern techniques of gathering evidence," Sergeant Holmes said. "We're introducing them to forensics, DNA, fingerprints and ballistics evidence, but they're used to relying on two witnesses in prosecuting cases."

Sergeant Wilkins has ten years of experience in the paralegal career field. She retrained from a previous Air Force job to stay in the military and continue to serve her country.

"When they ask me, 'What did you do in Iraq?'" Sergeant Wilkins said, "I will respond that I prosecuted terrorists."