For Former Military Lawyer Colby Vokey, the Defense Never Rests

Colby Vokey emerges from behind his wooden desk and crouches into a shallow squat, his broad shoulders eating up the space in front of the panoramic windows that overlook downtown Dallas. He bends at the knees and stretches his hands behind him, his crisp, dark suit crumpling unnaturally.

"The purpose is to create stress on your joints," Vokey says. His office walls skim the highlights of his life — college and law school diplomas, a Dallas Morning News story about his retirement from the Marines, a Wall Street Journal story about a teenage detainee whom Vokey defended at Guantanamo Bay. Vokey retired from the military in 2008 as a lieutenant colonel, but he still spends most of his time defending the accused in high-profile military cases — including one of the soldiers charged with manslaughter in the recent suicide of Chinese-American Army Private Danny Chen.

It creates incredible pain, Vokey goes on, still crouching. He's attempting to capture, as best he can from the comfort of an Uptown office tower, how that teenage detainee in the Journal story was shackled to the floor with his hands and feet chained together. Omar Khadr was 15 when he threw a grenade that killed an American soldier in Afghanistan, and he was among the youngest to be sentenced to Guantanamo. Shackled to the ground in prison, he eventually tipped over, Vokey says. The guards yanked him by his hair back into position. After a while, Vokey says, the boy urinated on himself. The guards squirted the ground with disinfectant and used Khadr as a human mop, swirling him in his own mess.

If there was a way to bring the scenario closer, to walk you through the halls of Guantanamo, to introduce you to his former client, Vokey would do it. But for now, crouching into this mock stress position, in the middle of his office high above McKinney Avenue, is the best he can do to make Guantanamo feel less distant, to help you grasp how this case, while meant to break his client, nearly broke him.

On November 19, 2005, a roadside bomb ripped through a U.S. military vehicle, the last in a convoy traveling through Haditha, Iraq. It was 25-year-old Sergeant Frank Wuterich's first combat experience. Setting out to kill the killers of his fellow soldier, he spotted a white car near the initial blast. Five Iraqi men stepped out and ran. As he would later tell 60 Minutes, Wuterich, who was in command of a squad of 12 men, shot to kill. (That the men fled was disputed by some witnesses.)

Moments later, Wuterich heard enemy shots from a nearby area. He promptly led his men there to "clear" a home that he believed to be the source of the fire. The soldiers upended the home with grenades and gunfire, but the occupants were all civilians. Believing the gunman had run from the first house to a second, the soldiers then mowed through that house's occupants, a family of seven, before finally reaching a third house, where they located a man with a rifle. They killed him and three others.

In the end, eight Marines would be charged with crimes for that day's sweeps, offenses ranging from dereliction of duty to murder. Wuterich was accused with murdering 18 civilians. He faced life in prison.

Before charges were formally brought against Wuterich, Vokey requested that his supervisor in the Marines assign him to the serviceman's case. "I wanted to jump on the most serious case, the toughest case," Vokey says. "He's the big one."

Vokey, who grew up in Dallas, had become serious about the military while at Texas A&M, where he earned an ROTC scholarship. He entered the Marine Corps as an artillery officer. "Big guns and calling in fire — it sounded pretty appealing to me," he says.

He was deployed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, for a tour in Okinawa, Japan, that included support for the Gulf War. He returned to Dallas to help the local Reserves unit, and while here served on a jury for a military court martial. "I thought, you know, I could do it better," he says, recalling the bumbling young attorney who defended the soldier accused of passing bad checks. "I just need to know what's in those books he's got on the table."

After graduating from law school at the University of North Dakota, Vokey and his growing family — he's married with three kids — moved to Camp Pendleton in California. He worked his way through the ranks, juggling a caseload ranging from soldiers gone AWOL to murders. By 2004, as more weighty war-crime cases began to surface, Vokey had been named Regional Defense Counsel, responsible for overseeing the "judge advocates" — that's Marine-speak for lawyers — for the western states and Iraq.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Leslie Minora