It’s shortly after 7 a.m., and a soldier stands alert, scrutinizing the driver of each car entering Gate 5 of San Diego’s Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Her posture is perfect, her demeanor polite, her gaze level. She is, of course, armed. There’s not the slightest bit of doubt that if the situation demanded it, she would use her weapon.
Visitors are instructed to slowly maneuver their cars around a series of staggered concrete barriers and make their way directly to their particular destination. Constant vigilance, dogged efficiency and the faint smell of freshly-mown grass mingle in the air.
Inside the courtroom, it’s quite pleasant. Six ceiling fans keep air circulating; open windows let in the roar of jets from nearby Lindbergh Field along with occasional distant yells and incongruous bursts of bugle song. When Judge Lt. Col. Jeffrey Meeks calls the court-martial proceedings to order, the accused, Staff Sgt. David J. Roughan, is flanked by his military counsel and the civilian defense attorney he’s hired to represent him against serious charges: involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and dereliction of duty.
Grave as those charges are, Roughan is in good hands. To his left, the attorney with silver-tinged hair curling over the collar of his tailored shirt is Neal A. Puckett, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel. In his entire career as a military criminal defense attorney, he’s never lost a case.
“I always win. I’ve never had a situation where I’ve lost since I was in private practice.” Puckett is enjoying himself. “Of course, a win doesn’t always mean acquittal.”
Puckett is a man who likes to talk, to persuade, to pontificate — all excellent attributes in a lawyer. There’s an appealing fearlessness to him; it’s easy to imagine that if you needed someone to defend your life in court, you’d be in the right hands if Puckett were on the case. He recalls that even as a boy in Indiana, he was fascinated by courtroom scenes. “I’d watch Perry Mason-type shows,” he recalls, when pressed. “My favorite movie was ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ I’m still interested in how people come to break the law, and I’m interested in human motivation.”
Puckett doesn’t shy away from high-profile clients. In just the past few years, he’s represented Army Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who was in charge of the Abu Ghraib prison when the notorious prisoner abuse scandal occurred. He’s currently representing Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich in the Haditha investigation, and filed a defamation lawsuit against Congressman Jack Murtha (D-PA) in connection with his remarks regarding the Haditha case.
“Karpinski and I hit it off while we were doing research, in case charges were brought,” Puckett recalls. When “60 Minutes” did a story about Abu Ghraib, she wanted an opportunity to correct the record, and Puckett made a few calls. Within hours, the pair were talking to every big media outlet in New York. “We did Diane Sawyer, you name it. We spent two days going from studio to studio, talking to all the top news shows.”
In the end, Karpinski wasn’t charged, but she did get demoted in a manner that still makes Puckett’s blood boil — via a statement released by the Army. “When you get fired in the military, it’s a face-to-face situation,” he says, adamant. “Always. You simply don’t expect treatment this shabby by the Army.”
When Murtha opined publicly on the Haditha investigation — which involves accusations that Wuterich led a squad that massacred Iraqi civilians — Puckett was livid. “He shot his mouth off and said that these Marines killed in cold blood,” he recalls. “That’s a congressman telling people that they were guilty. So I got the full story out there by talking to a contact at The Washington Post.” “It will forever be (Wuterich’s) position that everything they did that day was following their rules of engagement and to protect the lives of Marines,” Puckett told the newspaper in June 2006.
“I gave that reporter the story of what really happened in Haditha,” he says. “These guys are innocent.”
Inside the MCRD courtroom, Staff Sgt. Small is all apologies.
It’s his job to escort media on and off the base, and the proceedings are running behind schedule. “These cases are notorious for starting late,” he confides. “There’s a lot of hurry up and wait.”
He settles down to read a tattered paperback. Glancing out the window, it’s hard not to notice that the grounds of MCRD have a lot in common with a certain well-manicured college campus. There are stucco buildings topped with curved terra-cotta tiles, there are perfectly groomed expanses of lush green lawns and most everywhere you look, there are fantastically well-toned humans.
But soon enough, the proceedings are underway. After some discussion about witness lists, the prosecution lays out its case, which asserts that the death of Staff Sgt. Andrew Jason Gonzales during water-survival training at the depot training pool in August of 2005 was the fault of swimming instructor Roughan, one of two instructors charged in the case.
“My client pleads not guilty on all charges,” says Puckett.
During his opening statement, the prosecutor asserts that Gonzales drowned because Roughan wanted to send a message, and that his rough handling during rescue escape drills resulted in the Marine drowning while surrounded by his classmates and under supervision of instructors. While the mood in the courtroom is serious, there’s a sense of geniality between the attorneys on both sides of the aisle and the judge. In the spectator gallery, a young woman wears a photo of a square-jawed Marine around her neck. It’s of her late husband, Gonzales.
One by one, Marines testify about what happened that day in the pool. They tell of Gonzales’ initial refusal to participate in the exercise, his reluctance to take part in games of underwater water polo, of Roughan towing him toward the deep end to take part in one-on-one escape drills, of Gonzales yelling to be let go.
On cross-examination, Puckett is all business. “You said today that Roughan continued to tell him to relax, that he must have said it three or four times.” Then the response: Yes.
“You previously said that you saw nothing out of the ordinary. You didn’t have a need to intervene. Is that correct?” Yes.
“If you’d seen something unsafe, you’d have a duty to stop it, isn’t that correct?” Yes.
Another Marine testifies that yelling wasn’t unusual in the grueling training. “Every time we played water polo, at least one student would get out of the pool and want to quit the program.” Another adds further context: “Obviously it’s shocking to them the first time they play. We were instructed not to be too intense. We don’t want students out of the water, not participating.” Puckett keeps hammering certain points home: that Roughan held a briefing with instructors just before the training began about class safety. That he again brought instructors aside to remind them not to go overboard. That any of the Marines in the pool that day could have stopped the training if they’d thought something unsafe was going on. When a brief recess is called, Puckett takes off his jacket, revealing an immaculately pressed dress shirt and a pair of fancy leather suspenders.
As far as revelations go, that’s nothing. Before the day is over, he’ll divulge a piece of evidence that will make spectators gasp.
As a teenager growing up in Indiana, Puckett was one of the lucky ones. By the time he started winning speech and debate competitions in high school, he already knew precisely what he wanted to be when he grew up: a litigator. His interest in the Marine Corps came a bit later.
“The Marines had a program that let you complete Officer Candidate School, get commissioned as a second lieutenant when you graduated, then defer your active duty until you finished law school.” He leans forward, thoroughly engaged. “That’s what interested me; I wanted to go to law school right after college, then go into the Marines because they promised me lots of good courtroom experience. That’s what they were advertising; you come in as a lawyer, you go right into the courtroom, you get your own cases.”
It was a good plan, and it would have worked beautifully except that while Puckett was a college freshman at Indiana University he got married; by the time he graduated, going to law school wasn’t financially feasible. “I’d been married for three years, my second child was due, and the reality was that the Marine Corps wasn’t going to pay for my law school, they were just going to give me the time to do it before I went on active duty as a lawyer.”
So Puckett and his wife decided to roll the dice and take whatever assignment came his way. He’d found out that there was a program that would pay for officers to go to law school after their first tour.
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to let my dream of going to law school die, I just simply can’t afford it right now.’ It was pure economics.”
So he became an intelligence officer, which he describes as “someone who’s familiar with the collection, analysis and dissemination of information about the enemy. ” The enemy at that time was the Soviet Union. “My first real assignment was as an intelligence officer for an infantry battalion,” he recalls. “And the executive officer of my battalion went on to become Gen. Tony Zinni, who was the U.S. central commander right after (Gen.) Schwarzkopf and before (Gen.) Tommy Franks.” Zinni — one-time special U.S. envoy to Israel and the Palestinean Authority, and now vocal critic of the current Iraq war — became one of Puckett’s mentors.
Subsequently recruited as a counterintelligence officer, Puckett got into some serious cloak-and-dagger work: “It’s basically the gathering of the human intelligence. Running spies. It’s recruiting host-country nationals to spy against their own government. It’s also the protection of our information and personnel against exploitation by the enemy.” Asked if he was able to come home from a hard day’s work in those days and tell his wife about his day, he laughs out loud.
After serving on active duty for four years, Puckett got selected for the Funded Law Education Program, and attended law school at Indiana University. During the summers he’d go on active duty and serve as non-lawyer trial counsel (i.e. a prosecutor). It worked out well when it came to garnering on-the-job training, since Puckett got to prosecute cases in court years before he graduated. “At the lower level of courts-martial, the prosecutor doesn’t have to be a lawyer,” he explains. “Only the defense attorney does.”
Upon passing the bar, Puckett received orders to go to Naval Justice School, where he learned military procedure and law, and was subsequently certified as a judge advocate. In 1984 he lobbied to be assigned to Camp Pendleton. Steadily rising through the ranks, he served as staff judge advocate and chief prosecutor before applying for a special education program offered to just six officers to get their L.L.M. in a specific area of law.
“I wanted it, mainly because it meant that I’d spend one year getting an L.L.M., and the payback was having to commit to three years as a military judge.” He flashes an infectious grin. “Becoming a military judge was my goal, so if I got picked, I would get to be a judge without having to go through a separate selection program.”
When he got into the program, the University of San Diego was his first choice. “It had the best law program in the area and I got to stay with my family, since we were in-quarters at Camp Pendleton.” Puckett loved his time on campus. “USD was so accommodating to me, in allowing me to design my own curriculum and basically call it criminal law. Now when people look at that, and see L.L.M. in criminal law — which fulfilled my military aspirations and my professional aspirations — well, to say I got an L.L.M. in criminal law at USD looks pretty prestigious.”
After receiving that degree, Puckett was assigned to serve as a military judge in Okinawa, Japan, hearing all manner of cases. He’d thought he’d get sent back to Camp Pendleton once that assignment was completed and buckle down to his work as senior defense counsel, but the Marine Corps had other plans. “They told me I was going back to school. Understand, I’d just left USD, had spent three years in Japan, and now they’re sending me back to school to the Naval War College to get a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies.”
He smiles, aware of just how lucky he’s been. “By the time I retired, I had four degrees, including two law degrees, and three of that number were paid for by the Marine Corps. I was a poster child for educational opportunity.”
After getting that master’s degree, Puckett returned to the bench as a military trail judge at Twentynine Palms for a few years before returning to Okinawa as the officer in charge of the legal service support section of the Third Force Service Support group; during that tour, he also successfully defended a capital murder case. Before retiring from the Marine Corps in 1997, he got his kids off to college: a daughter to Indiana University, a son to USD.
When he moved to Virginia with his second wife, he assumed he’d have no problem finding work as a judge. For quite possibly the first time in his life, the roll of the dice let him down; there simply weren’t any jobs in his field available.
No worries. He’d just change careers.
“I really like coffee,” he says, deadpan. “I went down and put an application in at Starbucks and worked there for eight months while taking classes and putting together a business plan. I was going to open my own coffee shop.” But in the end, he decided to bag the coffee career, put his 22 years of experience to good use, and get back into law as a solo practitioner in military criminal defense. It’s worked out well thus far, because as he’s happy to tell you, in all his years as a military criminal defense attorney, Puckett has never lost a case.
It’s been a long day of testimony in the MCRD courtroom, and the prosecution is winding down. Marine after Marine has talked about the day that Gonzales climbed into the pool breathing, only to be pulled out of the water lifeless less than an hour later.
An earlier Article 32 hearing had resulted in these charges being filed against Roughan; at that time, Puckett told a reporter from the Marine Times that his client had done all he could to prepare students for the intensity of the course. “There’s no standard operating procedure, and there’s nothing to tell them how to do it,” he said, pointing out that the teachers “passed it down from generation to generation.”
When he pauses in his cross-examination and asks the judge to have a new piece of evidence admitted, spectators wonder how they ever could have missed the enormous poster leaning face-down against the wall. Puckett shows it to the judge. He shows it to the court reporter.
He shows it to the prosecutors, and finally, he turns it so that the courtroom audience can see it.
There really is such a thing as a collective gasp.
The poster measures at least three-by-five feet. Fully dressed solders are in a swimming pool. One is pointing a gun at the camera. One is behind a swimmer he’s getting ready to dunk under water using a rear-head hold. Bold type reads, “Swim or Die. Just Don’t Quit.”
“Do you recognize this poster?” Puckett asks Gunnery Sgt. Tim Sissen.
“Is that you?” Puckett asks, gesturing to the soldier that’s getting ready to dunk the swimmer under water.
“Yes.” He admits that this piece of evidence appears to be identical to a poster on display at the swimming pool in Coronado, where the official three-week Marine Corps Instructor for Water Survival course is taught, the very same course these Marines were training for that day. That poster will come up once more in this trial, when Puckett gives his closing argument. His last witness, First Sgt. Slattern, admits under questioning that he hadn’t even listened to Gonzales’ complaints that morning, when he’d come to him and asked to be released.
“First Sgt. Slattern had told him to ‘Swim or die’ because his career was going to die if he didn’t do it,” Puckett said during his closing argument. “To Gonzales’ credit, he tried his best to do what he was told, but in the end, he just ran out of air.”
The judge apparently agrees and dismisses the charges on all counts. The death of Gonzales is ruled an accidental drowning; Roughan won’t be facing a dishonorable discharge and 20 years in prison. Puckett is pleased, of course. “I love doing military defense,” he says. “Prosecutors never get thanked by anybody. I get so much personal satisfaction from being appreciated by a human being, by a service member, whose life I may have very positively affected.”
After court is dismissed, there are hugs and thanks and tears. Later that night, there is most likely a beer or two hoisted. But no more than that, because the next day, he’s off to the Naval Air Station, Miramar, to drop by the brig and check on another client.
Arguing the defense in a military court case every month or so isn’t exactly the most restful sort of retirement imaginable, but it seems to suit Neal A. Puckett just fine.