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Jeff Pearson Reflects on His First Ever Trial (in Military Court Outside of Fallujah)

Washington, DC – November 12, 2020 – Jeff Pearson reflects on his first ever trial as a young military lawyer in a military court outside of Fallujah, Iraq. Jeff’s essay “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” was published by The Chronicle-Independent and is also available online on his personal blog. The content is also reproduced below. 

We were on base outside of Fallujah, not the kind of place rational people would choose to hold a trial. But I was serving with the U.S. Marine Corps, full of people who take pride in going places others won’t go and doing things others won’t do. In our make-shift courtroom (as shown in the picture with the beloved Gary Sinise), it was hot and the constant noise of helicopters made it hard to get through opening statements.

It was my first case. My first time in a courtroom. You could call me “a boot,” a term referencing boot camp where you stumble through something you’ve never done before.

My job was to persuade the judge that the accused, a Marine, should go to jail because he stole mail from his junior Marines. I remember walking into the courtroom with the accused, his counsel, and the judge. The first part of my job was to take a weapon, an M4 rifle, from the accused. You see, all of us were under orders to carry weapons everywhere on post. And I was about to argue that the other guy (the one with an M4) should go to jail. In his wisdom, the Commander of our unit allowed an exception to his weapons order in certain situations (thank you, Commander). I remember a lot of things about that case, but I remember, more than anything, what the accused told me after the judge issued her verdict.

It’s been years since I’ve been in a military courtroom. My most recent case was in federal court, where I represented a trillion-dollar company in a case against another trillion-dollar company where billions were at stake. It’s a long, long way from a make-shift courtroom outside of Fallujah. But I still remember that first case. I’m not exactly sure why I thought about it recently, but I think it had something to do with Veterans Day. Or maybe it has something to do with how backwards the world feels right now.

Of course, it was backwards then too when we were deployed to Iraq. But it was backwards in a very different way. At all times, I was surrounded by Marines. For those of you not familiar with armed conflict, that’s a good thing. Unless you’re the enemy of course. There’s something else about the U.S. Marine Corps, and all the services, that I cherish. It’s called respect. Respect for each other. It’s built into the ethos of every military branch. Sometimes we call it by another name, like Honor, but it’s always respect. And the key is that the respect is mutual. That’s the key. It goes both ways.

And it’s not complicated. One human respects another human. That’s it. It should be the beginning and end of all our encounters.

Here’s what happened at trial. I argued that the accused should receive the maximum punishment for his offense. Perhaps that was bold for someone who had little to no experience in the courtroom. To my great surprise, the judge agreed. We all walked outside the courtroom and I handed the accused his rifle back. He immediately loaded his magazine with ammunition. Then he put his rifle in the ready position, looked at me, and smiled. He reached out his hand to shake mine and said, “Not a bad job for a boot, sir.”

It’s an understatement to say that he disagreed with me. But he understood the long-term healing powers of basic human respect. We shook hands and I’ve never seen him since. But I can tell you this: I admire that young Marine. Despite his mistakes, he deserves respect.

Yours truly,

Jeff Pearson