By Carol EubanksSeptember 19, 2008
FORT MCPHERSON, Ga. -- U.S. Army Garrison McPherson has a new judge in town. The following conversation with Lt. Col. Meg Foreman, Staff Judge Advocate, by Carol Eubanks, contributing writer for the Sentinel, provides some insight to justice ahead.
How long have you been practicing law'
I graduated from law school in 1994.
Where did you go to school'
I went to high school in Washington, D.C. I graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1988. From West Point, you cannot go straight to law school, so the JAG (Judge Advocate General) Corps was not an option. The Army has the Funded Legal Education Program (FLEP) where officers, who have spent between four to six years on active duty, can apply and, if accepted, go to law school at the Army's expense. While I was deployed in Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Storm, I applied for law school through the Army, was accepted, and started when I got back, in the fall of '91. I went to law school at Creighton University in Omaha in Nebraska, graduated in '94 and have been practicing in the JAG Corps ever since. I was branched in the Chemical Corps from 1988 to 1994.
While you were at West Point, did you know then that you wanted to become an attorney'
No. My father is a career JAG. He was in the JAG Corps for 27 years, but I never really knew what he did. We had to take two semesters of law at West Point. [It] is a very math-, science- and engineering-heavy school. You can only get a bachelor of science degree and, at that time, there were no majors. When I took law, the light went on and I said, "Wow, I love this!" But unfortunately, I couldn't go straight into the JAG Corps. However, as a platoon leader and executive officer, I had Soldiers who needed the assistance of a JAG. I interacted with JAGs for the first time on behalf of my Soldiers, and was just absolutely so impressed at what JAGs did in the field and how much service they provided to Soldiers. So the combination of falling in love with law at West Point and seeing what JAGs actually do in the field helped me know that's what I wanted to do.
How were you able to apply for FLEP while deployed and what was your biggest challenge in applying while deployed'
I have wonderful parents. That's how I was able to do it. I had from August to October to get as much of my application done as I could [before going to Iraq in 1990], and then my father actually submitted the rest of it for me. My parents actually went to Creighton and talked to the dean about my packet. They really helped me take care of that while I was deployed. It wasn't until I called home in December [that I found out that I was accepted into Creighton University and FLEP]. I'm very grateful to my parents because I really couldn't have done it if they hadn't been there to make sure that everything got in on time and took the extra step to see the dean at the school.
As an attorney, you've encountered interesting cases - some controversial. One involved a Soldier who was accused of rape and murder. What was your opinion concerning his guilt or innocence' How do you deal with situations where you may have to represent someone who you think is guilty'
I get asked that a lot. It's really not a hard question to answer. When you're a defense counsel and in the Army ... that's all you do. All you do is defend. You don't go back and forth between prosecuting and defending. When that's your job, whether or not the Soldier's guilty has nothing to do with your representation, because whether or not he's guilty has no bearing on what his rights are at trial. The Constitution of the United States and the Manual for Courts-Martial afford Soldiers, regardless of their guilt or innocence, certain rights at trial. They have a right to a speedy trial, a fair trial, to present witnesses and to present their case. When you're a defense counsel, your job is really to ensure that the Soldier you're representing is afforded all those rights and has an opportunity to present his case, has an opportunity to cross examine witnesses. That was [my] job. His guilt has no bearing on any of that. So, in that case and with any other Soldier I've ever represented, I really was not concerned about whether or not he was guilty. My only concern was ensuring he got a fair trial and, if he was convicted, making sure he got a fair sentencing proceeding so that when all was done, the result was fair.
Do you know why that Soldier pled guilty'
You know, I can't speak to why he did that. Only he knows why he made that decision. He was faced with two things. If he had chosen to go forward with a not guilty plea, it would've been a capital trial. That is, the government would've sought the death penalty in that case. That is the direction that that case was going. The Staff Judge Advocate of the 1st Infantry Division, which had the case at that time, indicated that if the Soldier agreed to plead guilty to certain offenses, that they would consider a non-capital trial. That is, they would take the death penalty off the table. So the question that the Soldier had to answer was, "Do I plead not guilty and potentially get the death penalty, or do I consider a guilty plea to certain offenses and, in turn, not have to worry about the death penalty'" He made the option to plead guilty to some of what he was charged with in order to not be faced with the death penalty. The sentence that he ended up getting was life without parole.
How do you guard against forming an opinion before the trial begins, perhaps because the evidence is so compelling' Or how do you do your job despite personal feelings'
We're fortunate in the Army that the majority of Soldiers, at least those whom I represented, were first-time offenders; otherwise they wouldn't have been in the Army to begin with. I think our Soldiers, by and large, have more going for them than clients that you'd see as a civilian defense counsel. I've had some clients that I didn't like - who I didn't think were nice people. But what I saw was a uniform. You know, they wore this (pointing to the Army Combat Uniform she was wearing). They took an oath to support and defend, and to me that overrides whatever it is that they did. I really believe that a person should not be defined by the worst thing that they've ever done in their life - that there's a lot more to a person than what he or she may have done. I'm not saying I didn't have personal feelings about [a case], but my personal feelings had nothing to do with my representation because my job was to ensure the process was fair. You shouldn't be defending if you don't want to do it. I use the word "defending" hesitantly. I've always said representing because I'm not defending anything the person did. I am representing them at trial. I'm batting for them because they can't bat for themselves. A good defense counsel will hold the government to every standard, every burden, every rule and that's how it should be. It keeps the government honest. The judge, more often than not, does not decide guilt. A panel of military officers and NCOs makes that call. A panel of people like you and me.
On a lighter note, tell me about your car (a 2007 blue Ford Mustang Shelby with two white stripes on the top of the car interrupted only by the windshield and rear window).
I have two weaknesses. One is Auburn University and the other is that car.
I've always loved Mustangs. I thought some day I'd have an old '68 Mustang because I've always liked that car. In 2006 the old body style came back. I fell in love with it. Then the Shelby came back, and that was all she wrote. I saw it; I had to have it. I paid more than I should've, but you know what' I've deployed twice, I've come home twice with all my Soldiers and my 10 fingers and 10 toes - I figure I deserve that car. I've had it for two years and it has not much more than 3,000 miles on it. It only comes out on nice days. The other weakness is Auburn. I am a graduate student at Auburn. I'm enrolled in its executive MBA program and will graduate in May. I'm not just Auburn crazy, I'm actually paying a lot of tuition to Auburn, which has made me even crazier about it. I am an Auburn Tiger. War Eagle!
What do you like to do in your spare time'
I don't have any. I used to, and I love to travel. I spent four years in Germany and my passport was full. I traveled everywhere on long weekends.
Is there anything else that you want readers to know about you'
I love being a Soldier. That's why I'm still on active duty. I love being in the JAG Corps. I don't think I can have the impact on people in the civilian world that I do here. It's a good feeling to know that you're making a difference every day. It means a lot to me.