Michelle’s report continues:
Sgt Layne Morris
Capt E did the direct examination of the government’s first victim, Sgt Layne Morris, a medically retired former Army Special Forces member who lost sight in one eye during the firefight in Afghanistan that ended SFC Chris Speer’s life and began Omar Khadr’s road to GTMO. Morris’ stoicism and matter-of-fact presentation were powerful. He also had a sense of humor, describing his initial thought at feeling a “punch” in his eye as perhaps being from his own rifle exploding as he fired grenades into the compound. After all, he remarked, the rifle was “built by the lowest bidder.” Of course, the rifle manufacturer was not to blame in this case; it was the compound’s inhabitants.

Morris was evacuated to Germany with the severely wounded Speer, who’d suffered shrapnel wounds to his head as the result of Khadr’s grenade attack. There, Morris and his wife met Tabitha Speer, a woman of dignity and courage.

Rather than considering himself a victim, Morris was grateful to realize he was alive after believing he would die at that compound so far away from home. “It was like getting a promotion.” Given the injuries and deaths of the many who have fallen in this long-running war, “my injuries are insignificant.” Morris’ biggest heartache was the toll his deployment and resulting injuries have exacted from his family, primarily his children.

On cross-examination, Morris admitted he and Mrs. Speer had filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Khadr’s father for failure to control his minor child and instructing Khadr to commit violent acts, among other allegations, related to the injuries Morris and Speer suffered. The defense highlighted that the lawsuit was not filed against Khadr himself, as it was the father who was responsible for the injuries and death. Despite winning the lawsuit, the Morris and Speer families have not received any money.

SFC Chris Speer

The Crime and Investigation Network is a favorite channel in our house. I’m not sure exactly why–perhaps because of the many courtroom scenes or the “whodunit” aspect of real-life murder mysteries. Those cases, dramatic as they are, don’t elicit much emotion.

This week’s testimony was different. There are only a limited number of places to eat and one place to shop on the windward side of Guantanamo Bay. There was no escaping the military commission, even outside the courtroom. For instance, last night we NGOs watched the prosecution witnesses eat dinner literally within feet of the defense counsel while media floated in and out of GTMO’s lone sports bar. With few options at this isolated location, a similar scene had repeated itself many times over the course of the week. So, when the commission was in session for the first murder trial I’ve ever observed in person, the key figures were quite real for us.

Yet, through all this, Sergeant First Class Christopher Speer had remained but a name on a charge sheet. On Wednesday, he became a living human being through testimony from his former boss and a colleague, both of whom knew Speer both on- and off-duty. SGM Y and CPT E painted a portrait of a young man who was skilled at his profession as an Army Special Forces medic and utterly devoted to his family. He was the guy who stayed late during training to practice his skills and who rushed home to play with his daughter–the guy who needed the encouragement of his boss to decide to stay for the birth of his son, rather than deploy with the first wave of Operation Enduring Freedom soldiers. And it was Speer who risked his own life to pick his way through a minefield to snatch 2 Afghan children from danger only days before his death.

SGM Y and CPT E both cut striking military figures—both had chests of military decorations that most generals can’t match, and their service dress uniform pants were snugly tucked into their Ranger boots. These are the type of men who undertake the most dangerous assignments, and only a select few fit the category. Have you ever seen a Special Forces member cry? Two choked up yesterday as they described the impact the loss of their friend Chris had on them. That’s quite a testament.

Yesterday morning’s testimony brought more of a glimpse into a life that could have been when Tabitha, Chris’ widow, took the stand. The love Speer had for her and their 2 tiny children he left behind was immediately evident. Speer’s dreams of becoming a doctor, his bathtime routine with his daughter, his final day at home with his family before his 2002 deployment, and family photos shown on the courtroom screen all put Speer into focus for the court members and spectators. Tabitha emphasized the importance of a father to a son. She looked Khadr in the eye at one point and forcefully declared that he is not the victim here; the victims are Tabitha’s children. The children’s letters to Khadr and Taryn’s struggle with the loss of her daddy at age 3½ left few dry eyes as Khadr himself bowed his head. Tabitha was the last sentencing witness for the government. The defense did not ask Mrs. Speer any questions. However, one of the panel members asked an interesting question. He asked, “Would it have made a difference if the man who killed your husband would have been wearing an Iraqi or Afghani uniform?” Mrs. Speer replied “yes.”

It’s one thing to watch a trial unfold on TV and another thing entirely to watch it live.

The morning began with a witness taken out of order due to the availability of a video teleconference from Afghanistan with the former staff judge advocate (SJA) of Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO). Surprisingly, this Navy captain (O-6), a man not known for his warm and fuzzy ways, and one who is a close advisor of a powerful commander (in other words, more logically aligned with the government) testified as a defense witness. The man had been the SJA of JTF-GTMO from 2006 to 2008, and he had at least weekly interactions with Khadr.

Captain M described Khadr during these contacts as respectful and helpful, particularly relating to keeping the detention facility personnel abreast of potential troubles among the detainees. Due to his age and the influence of Khadr’s father at the time of the firefight and his capture, and factoring in Khadr’s compliance and lack of radical expressions during his detention, Capt M opined that Khadr had good rehabilitative potential, something he’d never done before in his 25 or so years in the military. The import of this man’s words was not lost on the military members in the room. It is not often you see a senior officer, much less a lawyer who serves as an SJA, put his credibility on the line for an accused. To see it done for a GTMO detainee’s military commission sentencing case was really something.

On cross-examination, Capt Murphy scored some minor points by informing Capt M about a number of minor infractions Khadr had committed mainly during his early 2 years at GTMO. He also liberally quoted passages from the stipulation of fact to test Capt M’s definition of “radical” and to highlight the different status Khadr has now as a convicted criminal versus just being a suspect when Capt M dealt with him. (Trial techniques critique: It would have been helpful if the defense had provided a copy of the charge sheet and the stipulation of fact to Capt M before his testimony.) I’ve seen a number of lawyers testify over the course of my career, and they often have a tendency to get defensive or parse words unnecessarily. Capt M did neither, agreeing on points that might not be favorable to the defense, and, thus, coming across as a very credible witness.

On redirect, Capt M’s opinion that Khadr was salvageable was unchanged, despite the additional information he’d learned on cross-examination.

After Tabitha Speer’s testimony and the government’s resting its case, the defense began calling the rest of its sentencing witnesses. Unfortunately, that was also my cue to head for the ferry to the PAX terminal.

As we made our way to the leeward side of the bay, it struck me that there were some parallels among the key players in the case. While I certainly don’t mean to place the parties on equal planes, it’s worth considering that Speer’s son is now the age Khadr was when his dad uprooted the family and took them to Afghanistan. Khadr lost an eye and thought he would die in the firefight that took Morris’ sight in one eye and killed Speer. Both Khadr and Speer envisioned becoming doctors. Khadr and the Speer children both lost their fathers as children. The difference is that Speer was, by all accounts, a wonderful father who taught his children to do good, while Khadr’s father instilled just the opposite in him. One can’t help wondering how different life could have been for both sets of children.

Stay tuned for the end of the sentencing case…

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