Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Matt Diaz Needs Our Help

In yesterday's New York Times, (free subscription required) I read Tim Golden's amazing story of Matt Diaz, the Navy JAG who will be released from a Navy brig later this month after being convicted of releasing the names of the 551 Guantanamo Bay detainees to a civilian lawyer who was to get the information and begin stonewalled by the Navy. As the article describes what brought him from jail worker at Gitmo to jail inmate in the brig:

Sitting at a secure desktop computer, he printed out page after page of classified information, pulling each batch from the printer in case anyone wandered by. When he was done, Diaz had assembled a document 39 pages long. In tiny type, it listed names, prison serial numbers and other information for each of the 551 men who were then being held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay...

Now, Diaz knew he was crossing a line. For nearly two weeks after printing the list, he kept it locked inside the safe in his office. On another late night, he carefully trimmed the pages down to the size of large index cards. Then, on Jan. 14, the last night of his tour, he went back to the office one more time. While his colleagues were getting ready for his farewell dinner, he slipped the stack of paper inside a Valentine’s Day card he had bought at the base exchange. It was an odd touch. The card showed a cartoon puppy with long ears and bubble eyes and the greeting, “Hope Valentine’s Day is just your style.” Diaz would later say that he chose it because it was big enough to hold the list. He also hoped the lipstick-red envelope might pass unscrutinized through the Guantánamo post office."

Matt, now around 40, joined the Navy at 17 after his father was convicted of murder in California and sentenced to die in the gas chamber. His father, Robert, was convicted of killing elderly patients during his work as a nurse. But Matt's father Robert...

"...had never been in trouble with the law. No one had seen him inject the patients with lidocaine. Nor, despite the high levels of unmetabolised lidocaine in their bodies, was it certain they had been murdered. But Robert Diaz was the only nurse who was on duty when all of them died, and he sometimes carried preloaded syringes of lidocaine in his pocket. Two vials of the drug were found in the search of his home. (Robert said he had simply forgotten to empty his pockets before leaving work.) Prosecutors never offered a motive for the killings, but Diaz was arrested in November 1981 and charged with the murders of 12 patients.

“That’s when things started falling apart,” Matthew Diaz told me. At 16, he was left to fend for himself. He drifted back to Indiana, where his mother lived, but returned to California the next summer as his father’s trial approached. He soon dropped out of high school, found a job washing dishes and moved into a San Bernadino motel with a 28-year-old woman who had become his girlfriend.

Diaz stood by his father, but Robert Diaz’s legal defense was a debacle. Because he could not afford a private attorney, his case fell to a public defender’s office that was beset with dissension and budget problems. Robert’s attorneys persuaded him to forgo a jury trial and take his case before a judge — a move that was almost unheard of in a capital murder case."

Waiving a jury right? I admit there are rare cases where it's appropriate, but they're very rare. I remember interviewing for a scholarship to the National Criminal Defense College and talking about the number of bench trials I'd been stuck with when the interviewer said "Bench trials? Around here we call those slow pleas."

That's the way Robert's case ended up and his lawyer, "presented no new evidence or character witnesses in the penalty phase, noting simply that [Robert] Diaz was only 46 years old and had saved the taxpayers money by not having a jury trial." As you may have guessed, in April of 1984, Robert Diaz was sentenced to to die in the gas chamber. You can also probably guess where this left Matthew as well.

"For much of his adult life, [Matt] Diaz was the person in his family most likely to do the right thing. He was the one who would come to the rescue when someone needed help, the one who got through college and graduate school, the one who often kept the peace. His parents divorced bitterly when Diaz was 6, and he spent the next years careering back and forth between them. As children, Diaz, his older sister and their two younger brothers slept for a time in a single bed, cooking their own meals and shopping for groceries when the food stamps arrived. “We couldn’t count on our parents,” his sister, Shari Bravo, said, “but we counted on each other.”

Matthew probably counted on the lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights to do the right thing with the information he presented, but these are scary times to be a lawyer in her position. Can you imagine what she thought when she received these names? Am I being set up by the government? Is this a joke? She probably never guessed that the information was coming from inside the prison, from a whistle blower who knew what it was like to have a family member in prison and long for a competent lawyer to try to get you out. But, after considering turning the names over to the press (Can you imagine the fear a reporter would feel upon getting this information?) she decided to alter the federal judge who asked her to turn the info over to the Justice Department, who easily tracked the leak to Diaz.

"When we spoke a couple of months later at the brig in Charleston, Diaz was less contrite. He said he bore no resentment toward Olshansky and the Center for Constitutional Rights for turning his valentine over to the authorities; in fact, he was sending the group donations of $25 a month. Looking back, he insisted that he tried to do the right thing in the wrong way. “There was nothing else that I could really do,” he said. “I could have gone up the chain. But nothing I said would have ever left the island.”

Diaz is reviewing his own trial transcripts now — as he once reviewed his father’s — and working on an appeal with the same California lawyer who has handled his father’s appeals. Shortly before his scheduled release from the Charleston brig this month, he was stripped of his license to practice military law. He said he is unsure how he will support his family now but that he is thinking of trying to find work in legal aid, even if he is disbarred as a civilian lawyer too.

When I read this I emailed the author and am trying to secure Mr. Diaz a scholarship to Gerry Spence's Trial Lawyers College. I thought of him because Gerry defended Brandon Mayfield during the time I went to "the ranch" in 2005, resulting last month in a frustratingly little discussed blow to the Patriot Act.

The author emailed me back and forwarded my emails along to Diaz. I hope he takes advantage of this offer to help as I know many people who would chip in to help and know also that the things he learns there would help him come to terms with what he's done, with the amazing courage it took, and how he could continue to be a people's lawyer in civilian court. I know also that going to the ranch would connect him to a network of like minded people who believe in the rule of law and the importance of standing up to the government for the people.

I hope Mr. Diaz contacts me so I can explain this to him. Going to the ranch was a life-changing experience for me, and hope it could do the same for him. I know he deserves our help and a soft place to land when he walks out later this month, disbarred from the military and cast off by a government that purports to represent the land of the free and the home of the brave.

[Note: The information at issue was later released lawfully pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The information he was prosecuted for was not released as part of a FOIA. It was, and remains classified. Please get your facts right.