Dispensing Justice in Iraq
“September 11 occurred at the start of my third year of law school,” said Matthew S. Fitzgerald JD’02. “An earlier decision to consider the Army JAG Corps became a certainty that day.”
A criminal defense attorney for the military, Fitzgerald recently returned home after being stationed at Camp Taji in Iraq. “Military defense work is unique in that the U.S. Constitution and the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) go where the soldiers go — even to foreign countries,” he said.
Fitzgerald’s duties vary greatly. He defends soldiers at courts-martial, but also advises those suspected or accused of crimes with lesser forms of punishment. “Soldiers commit crimes no different than their civilian counterparts,” Fitzgerald explained. “I recently defended soldiers accused of sexual assault, burglary, larceny, drug use and possession, selling enemy property, and even the distinctly military offense of adultery.”
Because trials are often held in combat zones, justice is swift. Under Article 15 of the UCMJ, a soldier’s commander may dispose of a minor criminal misconduct. “When a soldier elects to be ‘tried’ under Article 15,” Fitzgerald explained, “the commander determines both guilt and punishment, which may include a reduction in rank, monetary forfeitures, restrictions and extra duty.”
According to Fitzgerald, this system permits the commander to take quick action and return the soldier to duty without detracting from the unit’s mission. “Soldiers can decline the proceeding if they feel the commander will unfairly find them guilty or impose unfair punishment,” he said. “This is typically rare, however, as a finding of guilt is a federal conviction.”
In addition to representing soldiers in criminal matters, Fitzgerald also advises them on administrative actions. “While not criminal in nature, these actions involve fundamental due-process rights given to the individual soldier facing adverse administrative action,” Fitzgerald explained. “This is one of the primary reasons defense attorneys must deploy with the units — so an attorney is always available to advise soldiers in these procedures.”
Because his clients are soldiers, Fitzgerald often goes to great lengths to reach them, including traveling in military convoys or by military helicopters. “Attorneys are no different than any other soldier,” he said. “We are expected to have all our combat gear on and our M-16 rifle at the ready. It gives us an appreciation for what many of our clients do every single day.”
Fitzgerald developed an admiration for military life early on. A self-described “Air Force brat,” he joined the military immediately following high school. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in education from Southern Illinois University and then taught high school for a number of years — all while serving in the reserves. He enrolled in Willamette University College of Law in 1999.
Fitzgerald said he chose Willamette because it met all his criteria for a law school. “I wanted to attend a small school for the collegial environment,” he explained. “I liked Willamette's location in a mid-sized city with plenty of resources, professional and recreational.”
Although initially averse to litigation, Fitzgerald found himself gravitating toward it after his first year. He credits Professor Leroy Tornquist with sparking his interest in trial work. “Professor Jeffrey Standen’s Evidence class also guided my desire to focus on litigation,” he said. “It was very compelling to see how the rules of evidence applied to cases.”
Since graduating, Fitzgerald has worked as a military prosecutor, command advisor and criminal defense attorney. Last November, he deployed to Taji, just north of Baghdad, with the 4th Infantry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas. He expects to return home this fall — to his wife, Sharna, and their two sons — but plans to remain in the JAG Corps for at least three more years.
“My interests are in military justice, so I am hoping either to return to prosecution or to try appellate work,” he said. “The military has been a great experience, and with the diverse work experiences and opportunities available, I can see lacing up my boots long enough to make the military my career until retirement.”
Matthew S. Fitzgerald JD’02
“I wanted to attend a small school for the collegial environment. I liked Willamette's location in a mid-sized city with plenty of resources, professional and recreational.”