When President George W. Bush proposed razing Iraqs Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, this American Army judge declared it a crime scene and forbade its demolition. When five years later President Barack Obama asked the Guantánamo war court to freeze all proceedings, the same judge refused the brand-new commander-in-chiefs request.
Hes Col. James L. Pohl, who has appointed himself to preside at the war crimes trial of the five men accused of orchestrating the Sept. 11 attacks.
Its not that Pohl is unaware of rank after three decades in the Army. Its simply not relevant in this colonels court.
Heres how he scolded a prosecutor when the prison commander, an admiral, was late for court to testify after lunch recess in January: Witnesses should be waiting either in the trailer at the back or outside, the judge bristled, and I really dont care what their rank is.
A soldier since the 80s and a judge since 2000, Pohl has had judicial oversight of some of the most notorious Army cases of the post-Sept. 11 era.
• He presided at the trials of nine soldiers found guilty of abusing detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
• He decided that U.S. Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hassan should get a death-penalty trial for the 2009 shooting spree that killed 13 soldiers and wounded dozens more at Fort Hood, Texas.
• In September, however, he found the opposite at a show-cause hearing for Army Sgt. John Russell. Unlike Hassan, Pohl ruled, Russell had an undisputed mental disease or defect that made it inappropriate to pursue a capital case for allegedly killing five troops at the combat stress center at Iraqs Camp Liberty in May 2009.
• Pohl also presided at the so-called mercy killing trial of an Army captain, a tank commander, who killed a critically wounded insurgent in May 2004, and was captured on an aerial drones videocam doing it.
Now, at a moment when most 60-year-old colonels are retiring from service, Pohl is chief military commissions judge, and has chosen to take on two of the most high-profile trials of his career: the 9/11 trial, and the trial of a man who allegedly engineered al Qaidas 2000 USS Cole bombing.
Each case seeks the death penalty. Each is to be heard by a military commission, the tribunals that Bush had created after Sept. 11 and Obama ordered reformed upon taking office.
Saturday, Pohl will face off for the first time with Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who bragged that he masterminded 9/11 for al Qaida wading into the case thats been a lightning rod for criticism that the court was created to cover up torture.
Serious about the law, but not himself
All judges should be like him, says Indiana Supreme Court Justice Steve David, a retired Army colonel.
Pohl takes what he does very seriously but not himself. He is fair and firm with a great sense of humor and a keen mind. If I were prosecuting or defending, he would be a great choice for judge.
Hes by far the most experienced military judge currently in the Army, adds retired Marine Lt. Col. Guy Womack, a veteran military defender of Pohl courts martial from the Green Zone in Iraq, Germany and the United States, notably the Abu Ghraib case.
There, Pohl caused a mini-stir by refusing a guilty plea by Pfc. Lynndie England, the soldier photographed with a detainee on a leash. At her hearing, another soldier testified that England was ordered to pose for that picture, casting doubt on her admission of conspiracy. Pohl ordered a trial. She was found guilty.