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A favorable verdict on Iraqi courts

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review

Attorney Sean McLaughlin has never tried a case in an American court. But Navy Lt. Sean McLaughlin presented dozens as a prosecutor in the Central Criminal Court of Iraq.

The Spokane native returned from Baghdad in August after six months of preparing cases against Iraqi and foreign insurgents accused of everything from illegal entry into the country to the killing of U.S. soldiers and Marines. His tour with Task Force 134 Detainee Operations took him from a court set in one of former president Saddam Hussein’s art galleries to trouble spots like Fallujah to the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

The Central Criminal Court was outside the heavily defended Green Zone, so each morning McLaughlin and other Americans journeyed by convoy that varied its route and timing. He says he stayed off the streets.

“It was not someplace you wanted to be by yourself,” he says. But he came to like the Iraqi judges who preside over court proceedings in a manner unheard of in the U.S. At trial, they ask the questions. They announce the verdicts. They impose the sentences.

McLaughlin worked in an investigative court somewhat similar to a grand jury in the U.S. The prosecutors presented evidence and questioned witnesses. If a detainee was indicted, he — all were males — was tried before a separate, three-judge trial court.

The proceedings are conducted in Arabic, so everything is done using translators.

Judges and attorneys would meet regularly to discuss cases and the finer points of Iraqi law, which in some ways set a higher standard of proof than do American courts. Circumstantial evidence, for example, gets little credence, and two eyewitnesses must agree on the events.

“It was definitely not a rubber stamp at all,” McLaughlin says, adding that in a few cases he does not understand what led to the release of the defendants. The toughest cases to make were those detainees accused of setting the improvised explosive devices that take so many military and civilian lives.

Some of the informal meetings turned into coffee klatches after he asked the Iraqis, who typically drink a small cup of chai tea for breakfast, if they would like to try American java. He bought a couple of coffee makers from the PX. His parents sent several varieties of coffee, including the Zags blend from Cravens.

“That was the one they really liked,” McLaughlin says, adding “I think they were a little startled by the caffeine.”

He plans to continue his caffeine diplomacy by sending more coffee to Baghdad once he gets squared away in his new posting at Groton, Conn.

McLaughlin, 30, graduated from Lewis and Clark High School, Gonzaga University and the Notre Dame School of Law. His father, Tim McLaughlin, teaches at Gonzaga. Rosemary McLaughlin, his mother, is a secretary at Roosevelt Elementary.

McLaughlin was assigned cases from particular Army and Marine units, whom he would visit in the field to explain Iraqi court procedures. Because they could not return to Baghdad for hearings, many soldiers testified by way of video-conferencing. They were excellent witnesses, he says, although for many the idea their assailants on the battlefield could be held accountable in a court of law was a difficult one to understand.

“In the nature of war, it’s almost hard to criminalize things,” McLaughlin says.

He says he had to advise soldiers the defendants might not look like they had when detained. Despite the reputation of Abu Ghraib, defendants typically arrived in the courtroom heavier and in better health. Most were either deceptive, denying the charges against them, or openly proud of the mayhem they had caused, and defiant of the court, saying “Let Allah judge me.”

McLaughlin says the Iraqi legal system was difficult for someone versed in Western law to understand and yet, by and large, he believes justice was done in most of the cases he handled. Still, he appreciates the American system of justice more than ever, as well as the respite from heat that reached 130 degrees.

McLaughlin volunteered for duty in Iraq, and says the experience was a rewarding one.

“The most important thing was getting justice for our guys on the ground,” he says.

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