Freedom detained 

Atlanta lawyers fight to gain rights for those held in Guantanamo

Somewhere between leaving Atlanta and arriving by ferry on Guantanamo Bay's stark eastern shore, Kristin Wilhelm began to wonder what she'd gotten herself into.

click to enlarge STAUNCH DEFENDERS: John Chandler and Kristin Wilhelm are corporate lawyers who reluctantly began to represent Guantanamo Bay detainees; they now see the case as a stab at the very heart of our legal system. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • STAUNCH DEFENDERS: John Chandler and Kristin Wilhelm are corporate lawyers who reluctantly began to represent Guantanamo Bay detainees; they now see the case as a stab at the very heart of our legal system.

The 32-year-old business litigation attorney had spent the previous afternoon wedged between two beefy military contractors on a chilly, deafening flight aboard a 15-seat puddle-jumper as it skirted Cuban airspace to reach the remote naval base.

It was the end of June 2004 and the climate was hotter and drier than Wilhelm had expected. Palm trees and scrub brush dotted the sandy brown hills and mosquitoes swarmed everywhere. Assigned to the western shore of the bay, a mile from where the wide, irregular inlet eventually fades into salt marshes, Wilhelm was unnerved to be so near the watchtowers and razor wire that marked the edge of U.S. territory. That night, after settling into her spartan room in the low-slung bachelor's-quarters building, she broke her own vow not to call her parents back in Stone Mountain for reassurance.

The next morning, during the mile-and-a-half ferry ride across the bay, she sat anxiously silent while her three fellow attorneys chatted to each other. By the time she reached the final security checkpoint at Camp Echo, where green fabric woven into the tall chain-link fencing blocked out any view but the sky, Wilhelm was worried that she had gotten involved with a cause she wouldn't have the stomach to see through to the end.

In a few minutes, she would meet one of the men whom Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had famously called "the worst of the worst." Those housed here were all supposed to be ruthless killers, wild-eyed jihadists, al-Qaeda holy warriors or some combination of the three.

"My thought was, 'What the heck am I doing down here?'" Wilhelm recalls. "I believed it was our responsibility as lawyers to give these people their day in court. But I had decided that if I met some really bad guys, I'd find some way to disengage myself so I wouldn't have to come back."

AS THE PRODUCT of a liberal-leaning family in Stone Mountain, nothing Wilhelm had ever done had remotely prepared her for Guantanamo.

A top student, she majored in political science at Furman University, but realized the rough-and-tumble world of politics wasn't for her. At the University of Michigan law school, she decided she lacked the calculated dispassion needed for criminal defense law. After clerking for a federal judge, she moved back to Atlanta six years ago to join Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, a 200-lawyer firm in Midtown, to specialize in complex corporate litigation, a branch of the law rarely concerned with issues of right and wrong.

"I'm what you might call an 'L.A. Law'-type of lawyer," Wilhelm explains. "I've had a fairly perfect life so far. I was a good girl. I did well in school. I did everything I was supposed to."

Wilhelm's career was solid, but not thrilling. In six years, she had gone to trial only once. Then, two years ago, her boss, John Chandler, called her into his office and asked if she would be interested in joining a team he was assembling -- they were going to represent several prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

The offer gave her pause. Privately, she worried that she wouldn't be a good fit for the assignment, that she wasn't emotionally prepared to meet face-to-face with men whose aim was to destroy her country. "As far as understanding what was at stake in these cases, I was like your typical American," she says. She reminded herself that it is a lawyer's mission to ensure the protection of everyone's legal rights, even if they happen to be terrorists. Wilhelm rationalized that, if nothing else, it would give her the chance to gain experience in a different area of the law. She told Chandler she would join the team, but she also told herself that she would bail out if she found the clients distasteful.

The case quickly began to take on dimensions that Wilhelm had not expected -- she began to understand that what was happening at Guantanamo was a fundamental challenge to the right of habeas corpus, the very heart of our rule of law.

The legal principle of habeas corpus -- the idea that a government must present evidence to justify holding a prisoner -- dates at least to the 1215 signing of the Magna Carta, the English charter that formed the basis for modern law. "When the founders were creating this country," explains Neil Kinkopf, constitutional law professor at Georgia State University, "they considered habeas corpus to be so fundamental to our concept of liberty that they didn't think it necessary to explain it in the Constitution."

Also at stake are decades of American legal tradition invested in the Geneva Conventions and other treaties that established international laws of war and the treatment of foreign prisoners -- tenants that the United States had originated and pushed into practice for the humane treatment of prisoners of war.


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