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Marines make provocative choice for key defense counsel post

  • McClatchy Washington Bureau
  • Published Monday, May 19, 2014, at 4:17 p.m.

— A Marine Corps officer whose bellicose prosecutorial rhetoric prompted defense complaints will now oversee defense attorneys, potentially including some who blew the whistle on him.

In a remarkable career turnabout, Lt. Col. Robert Palmer has been named the Marine Corps’ regional defense counsel for the eastern region. The new assignment puts Palmer in charge of about 30 defense attorneys at Marine Corps bases in North Carolina and South Carolina.

Palmer’s previous service as a trial judge in the same region incited myriad appeals and a special fact-finding inquiry, following allegations about incendiary comments he made to young lawyers. Palmer allegedly called defendants “scumbags” and asserted that “the defendant is guilty; he wouldn’t be here at this stage in trial if he wasn’t guilty,” among other things.

“The optics are not good if you are an accused looking in,” civilian defense attorney Philip Cave, who represents many members of the military, said of the appointment Monday.

Citing the job “transition and the workload associated with taking on his new duties,” a Marine Corps spokesman, Capt. Ty Balzer, said Palmer wasn’t available for comment. Balzer said Palmer will start his new job by the end of May.

As regional defense counsel, Palmer will oversee staff at Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina, as well as at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island in South Carolina.

An Iraq war veteran, Palmer has won praise for his professionalism from some of his colleagues. He also has passed on his knowledge to younger staff. On June 21, 2012, while serving as a trial judge at Parris Island, Palmer gave a talk to five junior Marine Corps officers.

During the two-hour talk, the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals stated in a November 2012 decision, Palmer made “various statements not in keeping with standards of judicial decorum.” Two of the junior officers subsequently complained.

“One law student wrote that the military judge said that ‘if you are trial counsel and prosecuting a child pornography defendant and he gets off because of your incompetence, you will go to hell’ but further adds that ‘I think he was trying to be humorous with this comment,’” the court noted.

The appellate court stated in its November 2012 decision that “a reasonable person” made aware of Palmer’s comments “may well conclude that they are indicative of bias,” but nonetheless it upheld Palmer’s handling of a challenged criminal case.

All told, convictions or sentences in at least 10 trials managed by Palmer while he was serving as a judge were challenged by Marine Corps defense attorneys in the wake of his 2012 comments. In most cases, the military appellate court upheld the conviction or sentence.

But in a May 2013 decision, the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals called into question Palmer’s handling of defense challenges during the trial of a lance corporal charged with drug offenses. The 2012 trial differed from the others because it included Palmer’s aggressive attempt to defend his judicial reputation.

“He was palpably defensive and transparently critical of two junior judge advocates,” the appellate court noted.

Stating that Palmer’s actions “would lead a reasonable person to question whether he lost his fairness and impartiality and became primarily focused on protecting himself,” the appellate court ordered new sentencing for the convicted former lance corporal, Ian C. Bremer.

Facing a similar challenge by another convicted Marine, former staff sergeant and recruiter Dustin Kish, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces last year ordered a special fact-finding inquiry into what happened.

Palmer has disputed some specific recollections. While one student lawyer has recalled that Palmer said the Marine Corps commandant wants more convictions in sexual assault cases, Palmer has countered that he really said the commandant wants “a higher level of competence.”

The day-long fact-finding inquiry last year included conflicting testimony, including some accounts from officers who said they had no problem with what Palmer said.

“Marine officers tend to use colorful language,” Capt. Nathan Cox testified. “It’s part of the culture (and) I didn’t think anything objectionable occurred.”

But another officer, 2nd. Lt. Amanda C. Cummins, declared that Palmer “seemed like he was very hostile to defense counsel” and conveyed the idea that “if you’re a defendant, that’s it; you’re done, you’re guilty.” Cummins’ account, in turn, was disputed by yet another officer who heard Palmer’s talk.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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