12:00 AM CST on Sunday, December 13, 2009
By LEE HANCOCK / The Dallas Morning News
BELTON, Texas – CNN’s Wolf Blitzer barked at John P. Galligan on national TV, demanding to know how a retired colonel and Army judge could defend anyone accused of slaughtering fellow soldiers. On Fox, Greta Van Susteren told the rumpled lawyer that he had the lousiest legal job in America.
Attorney John P. Galligan represents Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is accused of killing 13 people and injuring dozens more during a shooting spree Nov. 5 at Fort Hood.
Yet Galligan says defending the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 12 soldiers and a civilian and wounding dozens at Fort Hood may be his last, best case.
The lawyer says he agreed to defend Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan for the same reason he has spent nearly four decades in military courtrooms, as prosecutor, defense attorney and military judge.
“I love soldiers,” he says. Jutting his chin and squinting through thick glasses, he speaks of their sacrifices. Justice depends, he contends, on fair treatment even for soldiers accused of the most horrific crimes. “We owe them.”
For years, soldiers in trouble have found their way to Galligan’s limestone office at the southern edge of downtown Belton. The 60-year-old lawyer seldom turns anyone away.
One Fort Hood officer says Galligan has represented so many of his men that he’s on retainer to the battalion. At Bell County’s jail, where Fort Hood soldiers are held pending military trials, jailers joke that Galligan’s phone number must be scrawled on cell walls.
“Just fighting the good fight,” Galligan tells colleagues who ask how he’s holding up.
Dozens of witnesses saw Hasan pull two pistols and gun down colleagues on Nov. 5. He fired hundreds of rounds before civilian police returned fire and wounded him four times, leaving him paralyzed. A U.S.-born son of Palestinian immigrants, Hasan had told relatives he wanted out of the Army. Colleagues recalled his saying that Muslim soldiers shouldn’t have to fight fellow Muslims.
Yet Galligan didn’t hesitate when one of Hasan’s brothers saw him quoted in a news report and called from overseas to ask him to take the case. Even the worst accusations are only accusations, Galligan keeps telling reporters. Even the most unpopular soldier deserves a fair trial, he says.
“He cares. And he tries so hard,” says Kim Anderson Stewart of Denton. Galligan recently defended her son, a three-time Iraq combat veteran with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress syndrome. The soldier was sentenced to seven years in state prison for aggravated assault after shooting his wife in the face with a pistol – an incident that the couple insisted was an accident.
“I don’t understand it, really, because he could be enjoying his retirement and playing on the farm with his wife,” Stewart says of Galligan. “He’s always working – seven days a week. He just wants to help these soldiers. It’s like it’s his mission.”
Galligan grew up on Army posts, the second of four children to a career U.S. officer and a British mother. He went to school by correspondence course in Istanbul, Turkey, after the eighth grade because the closest school for American military kids was several countries away.
He learned the cello as a child and got good enough to play in community orchestras as an adult. He started sailing, his only other hobby, as a teenager on the Bosporus Strait. He keeps his instrument in a corner of his law office and a 23-foot sailboat moored by his home on Lake Belton.
Galligan and his siblings were expected to excel and help others, says his older sister, Sheila Galligan, a Catholic nun and theology professor in Pennsylvania. Their father wrote so many letters to newspapers, she says, that he probably inspired his son’s adult habit of writing to the Temple Daily Telegram. One staffer there says Galligan is so prolific that “the publisher has him on a quota.”
Galligan earned a foreign relations degree from Georgetown University and joined the Army. He says he volunteered because he expected to be drafted during the final years of the Vietnam War. Though he didn’t expect to make it a career, he got hooked on military law.
Early on, his sister recalls, Galligan was firm when questioned about taking on what seemed to be heinous cases. “If you don’t like it, change the law,” she recalls his saying. “He told me, ‘I’m working within the law. That’s what my conscience has to follow.’ ”
She came to understand that their work has important parallels. Each confronts essential questions about justice, morality and forgiveness. She has worked with the father of a man beheaded by al-Qaeda in Iraq. The father, Michael Berg, came to her class on forgiveness and later gave public speeches with her on how that experience helped him find a measure of forgiveness and peace.
Galligan spent much of his Army career at Fort Hood. By the time he retired, he was chief judge of a district that included the Central Texas post as well as Fort Bliss in El Paso, Fort Huachuca in Arizona and Fort Carson in Colorado.
He had his share of grim and even bizarre cases. Perhaps the oddest was that of a five-time deserter, a man who kept going AWOL and re-enlisting under a different name. “Every time, he used the name of a different Star Trek character. He’d go back to the same boot camp, and nobody recognized him,” Galligan recalls. “When I had him, he was Jean-Luc Picard.”
“You realize that whatever you’re going to do today is going to have an impact on not only the defendant sitting in front of you but on all these mothers, fathers, wives, kids,” he says. “I’ve had mothers come in and take out their false teeth and put ’em on the bench and say, ‘He’s a good boy. He bought me these.’ ”
After he retired from the bench and the Army in 2001, Galligan opened a solo law practice in Belton. His wife, Harr, a former ICU nurse, designed his office at the edge of Nolan Creek. The limestone building shaded by live oaks is one of the plushest law offices in town.
Houston criminal defense lawyer Jack Zimmermann was among those who tried to warn Galligan that the transition to civilian law might be bumpy after years of reliable Army paychecks and funding for everything from paralegals to trial experts.
Overnight, Galligan went from commanding a large staff to answering his own phone and pecking out his own legal filings. He still practices that way, working at least 12 hours every day with Sammy, a squawking green parrot, and Max, a rescue mutt, for company.
“From the beginning, I always cautioned him that he doesn’t charge enough,” says Zimmermann, a retired Marine Corps officer and military judge.
Galligan admits that advice never sank in. “I do not like the real business side of law,” he says. “For 30 years, I didn’t have to worry about a fee or do a collection, and I’m not very good at it now.”
He says about half of his clients are active-duty military. Of those, about half are combat soldiers with post-traumatic stress syndrome – the kind often interviewed and treated by Army psychiatrists like Hasan. In civilian courts, he estimates, about three-quarters of his clients are court-appointed.
“The difficulty is the time associated with these cases. You never make enough to cover what you put in,” Galligan says. “Sometimes you feel like you’re a lawyer. Then you feel like a social worker. Other times, you feel like a marriage counselor.”
He often takes nominal fees even in high-profile cases. He told one Army master sergeant that the only payment he’d take was a replacement for the paper shredder he had worn out in trial preparations. The replacement shredder sits near Galligan’s massive office desk.
That soldier was accused of lying about the death of a soldier in a training incident at Fort Hood. In 2008, the master sergeant was given a formal reprimand. Seven of his colleagues also defended by Galligan got lesser reprimands.
His fee in another case was a steakhouse gift certificate. “He knew I like rib eyes,” Galligan says of the soldier who was his client. And in another, he told a soldier to give him an old motorcycle.
Galligan defended a Fort Hood soldier accused of terrorizing an Iraqi village by staging mock executions. A military jury convicted the captain of assaulting Iraqis and gave him 45 days in jail but kept him in the Army.
In another case, featured on 60 Minutes, Galligan defended a soldier implicated in the death of a U.S. military prison detainee in Afghanistan. In 2005, the soldier was convicted of maiming and assaulting the detainee and making a false statement about the abuse of prisoners. Even so, a military jury gave no prison time or fines and allowed him an honorable discharge.
Military lawyers who have tried cases with and against Galligan say he’s challenging, fun and obsessive. “It’s like being in a lab with a mad scientist. You never know what’s going to come out of his mouth and what he’s gonna come up with next,” says one Army defense lawyer. “And I don’t think you could ever throw that man off his guard.”
His military colleagues say his recent closing argument in a sexual misconduct case against a sergeant was classic Galligan. “You’ve got to look at a whole person, unless we say that a person who is convicted of an offense – any offense – is not worth saving,” Galligan told jurors. “Our system is designed so that we don’t punish for the sake of punishment.”
Jurors kicked his client out of the Army and ordered him jailed for a month. Galligan huddled with the weeping man. “It ain’t over,” Galligan kept saying. “We’ll keep fighting.”
Galligan has also found time to become a local political player. The Temple newspaper dubbed him “the face of the opposition” and “the most outspoken person on local politics in Bell County.” He and supporters forced elections in 2003 and 2004 that blocked bond funding for a new county court and jail complex. Galligan ran unsuccessfully for county judge in 2006 but got more than a third of the vote despite spending nothing to campaign.
“Galligan is not afraid of controversy,” says Daily Telegram reporter Paul Romer. “He won’t back down.”
He’s already begun swinging as military prosecutors make opening moves in their case against Hasan. He’s repeatedly complained that the Army isn’t following normal procedures in the major’s detention, the pace of proceedings and funding for the defense team. He and his military co-counsel face a formidable prosecution team. In the last few weeks, a lieutenant colonel and a colonel in the Army’s legal corps have been brought to Fort Hood to work full time on the case. The defense team did recently receive approval for an Army-funded private investigator and military paralegal, and Galligan says he will ask for more Army lawyers to join the defense team.
“This thing is being carefully choreographed in Washington,” Galligan says.
Galligan predicts that the case will test the military justice system that has been his life’s work. “For a long period of time, we’ve been able to make marked improvements from the system that was so criticized in the past. I think this case could very well threaten the progress we’ve made,” he says. “You don’t get anything more significant than whether you can get a fair trial”
Galligan’s wife worries about her husband’s safety. He’s gotten threatening calls and e-mails. “He doesn’t take it very seriously,” she says. “I’m very concerned.”
Other lawyers say Galligan faces the fight of his career. A military murder trial can overwhelm even a large law office, says Zimmermann, the Houston lawyer.
Hasan’s case “is magnified by the political ramifications and the fact that the people who were killed were not soldiers of an enemy force,” says Zimmermann, who heads the military law section of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “It’s going to be all-consuming.”