By Jess Slatten
As an attorney for over a decade, speaking in court is not new to me. However, two years ago today, I did something I never thought I'd do: I represented my brother in court . . . but not in the way you think.
I was not his lawyer. I was the sole witness to speak on his behalf at a sentencing proceeding that, even today, seems like a bad dream. Many other family members and friends were there in the courtroom, and thousands more were thinking of and praying for our family all across the country. All of them would have gladly spoken on Nick's behalf; scores of them wrote powerful letters to the judge. However, months before I boarded the plane to fly to D.C., to see my brother Nick in shackles and say my piece, we all knew that no one could say anything that would change the judge's mind. He was going to sentence my little brother to life in prison, and that's why, in the end, it came down to me, alone, standing at that podium. But, even knowing in advance that my brother would have to find whatever justice is left to be had in his case on appeal, I stood up there for Nick because that's what big sisters do. And, while I was cognizant of my duty to be respectful to the court, I certainly had no intention of making it comfortable. So, I took some deep breaths and steeled myself, determined that whatever else I said or did, I would not cry. After pausing a few seconds (that felt like an eternity) to ensure I had my composure, I pulled the microphone down to fit my 5' 2" frame, and held it there during my entire presentation, determined to keep my voice up and the judge from nodding off (he had fallen asleep during other portions of the same proceeding), confident that, at the very least, he was going to hear me.
And he did. I told the judge about all the people who love Nick and pointed out the dozens of people—everyone from family to brothers-in-arms to life-long friends—who were there that day to support him. I told him stories relayed to me from men with whom Nick had served, friends he'd helped, lives he'd changed, saved even. I told him what Nick means to me, or at least I did my best to consolidate over 30 years' worth of memories and feelings into just a few words. He held my gaze as I told him these things, and I give him credit for that. But, when I spoke about how my brother is an eleventh-hour "villain" of convenience, demonstrably innocent of the war-zone crime for which he'd been vindictively charged just one month before trial and of which he had been unfathomably convicted with no support in the evidence, he looked away. When I implored the judge to reconsider his denial of Nick's motion for a judgment of acquittal, reiterated that the law demanded that he not sentence Nick to life in prison for a crime he did not commit—that the judge knows there's evidence (which the jury never heard) that Nick could not have committed—he would not look at me, just as he would not look at my brother when, later that same day, Nick asked for the freedom he deserves.
Still, I said the words to which I'd given so much thought for weeks. I also stumbled through some extemporaneous points inspired by a government sentencing presentation that left the mouths of the seasoned war veterans in the room agape with its impossibility. While I do not personally know anything about combat, I don't suffer from a lack of common sense, and someone in that courtroom needed to say what the vast majority of the people who watched that presentation were thinking: someone needed to make the point that the court was about to condemn highly-trained, experienced combat veterans for actions in a war zone following convictions by civilians who bought into a politically-convenient story told by government prosecutors and "experts" who learned all they know about combat from Wikipedia . . . even though a witness statement filed during the sentencing process showed that the government's entire theory of the case was based on perjured testimony. So, I said all that too. But, just as I knew from the beginning, in the end, none of my words mattered. Nick was sentenced to life in federal prison without parole. The three other innocent men who sat with Nick to my right, and whose families and friends were also in the courtroom, sharing the nightmare, received thirty years and a day.
For nearly two-and-a-half years, these men have been serving sentences secured by some of the worst constitutional rights violations imaginable. For longer still, they have been demonized in the media. As a result, even though legal experts, including the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, say their convictions are unjust and their trial never should have happened, virtually no one is willing to listen. Innocent civilians tragically died during a war-zone engagement in which one OTHER person committed crimes, so "justice" has been served. Case closed: contractors are fungible, equal in their disposability, pawns worthy of little else than political sacrifice. With that politically-convenient soundbite established, no one wants to have the conversation we need to be having. No one wants to hear—let alone seriously consider—that what has passed for "justice" so far in this case is denying four decorated veterans the very rights they sacrificed their youths to protect and fought wars to defend. No one wants to acknowledge that these men—good, family men who did their jobs in a horrible situation in service of the Department of State—are among the innocent victims of Nisur Square.
I visited one of these innocent men—my little brother Nick—just last weekend, in a maximum-security penitentiary. By this time, nearly two-and-a-half years since his October 22, 2014, conviction, I have lost count of the number of times I've walked through the razor-wire courtyard that separates his world from mine. I have lost count of the number of times I've tried to assure him that, while the appellate court can never make this right, I am confident its decision will send him home. But, because I also assured him that there was no way he'd be convicted in the first place, in all honesty, I've also lost count of the number of times I've tried to convince myself that the appellate court won't simply rubber stamp these unjust convictions.
The truth is, like most lawyers, I know the right words to say, but I also know it's mostly lip service; I'm not sure what "justice" really means in this case anymore. The Department of Justice gave itself an award for what it did to these men. So, even if they come home to their families, will there ever be any accountability for what's happened to them? Is anyone going to conduct a proper investigation regarding, let alone take anyone to task for, all the rules that were broken and ethical standards that were disregarded to secure these convictions? Or will that conversation be off limits too? If our families are reunited, should we shut up and be thankful that our lives were destroyed for "just" a single decade rather than four in Dustin, Evan, and Paul's case and however many decades Nick has left to live in his? Are "they" (whoever "they" are now that someone else is running the show) counting on us to stand down? Or is someone finally going to send the message that what happened to these men (who certainly are not the only ones to be discarded for political expedience in the past decade) is no way to thank those who—regardless of their title—put their lives on the line serving under the American flag? Is the current administration really going to make this "right" like so many people seem to believe? And what would that even look like? A pardon? Please. Pardon = guilty. My brother and Paul, Dustin, and Evan are innocent. It only took a constitutionally infirm trial to get to a different result. Where is the outrage about that from all those who make millions filling up the airwaves with their love for our American way of life? Or is that just lip service too?
It won't surprise anyone who knows me that I have so many questions. But, right now, the answers to most of them are secondary. As we wait for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to decide the Raven 23 appeal, the only question that really matters is whether the three judges on the appellate panel will refuse to avert their eyes from the law and not shy away from the truth. Because both of those things—the law and the truth—should have set Nick, Dustin, Evan, and Paul free long ago, without any members of the Slatten, Heard, Liberty, or Slough families ever having to say a thing.