A photograph of Stephen P. Karns on his Web site shows him clad in combat gear, sporting body armor and a helmet against a backdrop of barbed wire, looking like a soldier in the combat zone. In fact, he was a lawyer in the combat zone.
In 2004, Karns traveled to Baghdad as civilian counsel to Armin Cruz, a military intelligence soldier accused of abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Karns secured for Cruz one of the lowest sentences—eight months—of those connected with the scandal.
Cruz first consulted with Karns while on a two-week leave from Iraq, months before the Abu Ghraib story broke. At the time, Cruz was under investigation for his role in the Abu Ghraib scandal by the Army’s criminal investigation division. Cruz’s family located and contacted Karns via the Internet.
“I had handled military cases, but not like this,” says Karns. “It was pretty surreal knowing my client had not yet been named.” Then, in April 2004, photos started surfacing of naked, frightened Iraqi prisoners being humiliated while in the custody of smirking American guards. Karns realized that the case was going to make international headlines.
“[Cruz] wasn’t the biggest fish, but he was the second one who was prosecuted. I knew it was going to be covered by CNN and the networks, and I tried to stay focused—that was the important thing. I wanted to do my best, to avoid distractions. I figured when it was done, I could answer questions.”
Cruz, a decorated soldier who had received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, had wanted to plead not guilty and litigate. But if he had been found guilty of anything, it would have been a felony, says Karns. Cruz was working toward his teaching degree, and a felony conviction could keep him from getting licensed. So in exchange for a plea bargain, they pleaded the charge down to the equivalent of a misdemeanor, with a maximum sentence of one year.
“We felt that cap was high based on what he did,” says Karns, “but the risk was that he’d be convicted of a felony and risk not realizing his vocational dream.”
Karns’ representation of Cruz received extensive media attention—including being interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Today, Karns consults on military law for NBC and The Wall Street Journal, among other news sources. He spends approximately 40 percent of his time on military cases, representing members of the armed services.
Karns says he feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve as a lawyer in the combat zone. But on his last morning in Baghdad, insurgents launched mortars into Camp Victory while he lay asleep on a cot in a canvas tent—in the dark. “There were whistles and—boom—five in a row,” Karns says. “It’s amazing the helplessness you feel when someone is bombing you—not knowing where to go or where to run. You … realize just how fragile life is.”
Despite an absence of lawyers in the family or relatives in the military, Karns says he “dove into military law head first.” Between his second and third years of law school, he interned at the Pentagon in the Office of the Army General Counsel, and in 1995 joined the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps. That same year he graduated from the Army’s 10-week Judge Advocate Officer Basic Course in Charlottesville, Va., and three weeks of Airborne School in Fort Benning, Ga. He served as a captain on active duty from 1995 to 1998 in Fort Carson, Colo., where his life as a practicing attorney began.
Those three years in the Army gave Karns the confidence to open his own law firm in Dallas in 1998 upon leaving the military. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he decided to join the reserves.
“I felt a duty,” says Karns. “You only live once. If I got activated, I’d come back and start over. If I was able to start my practice once, I could do it again.”
He joined the reserve unit for the 22nd Legal Support Organization in Mesquite, where he served as a major from March 2002 to July 2005, in addition to maintaining his law firm.
Karns credits the JAG Corps with giving him practical experience, reinforcing his work ethic and enhancing his sense of ethics. “I think the Army is strong on doing the right thing and being ethical,” says Karns. “And as far as training, the Army was very good at teaching technical skills.”
As the magazine went to press, Karns was poised to travel to South Korea to represent an F-16 pilot accused by the government of collecting extra pay. The court martial was scheduled for Feb. 14, 2007. Recently, Karns handled two cases in Kuwait, one involving an officer charged with stealing, the other a sexual harassment case.
Recently married, Karns says that he has “everything”: a wife, a home, a practice that is going like gangbusters. “You can always want more, but there is only one of me. I feel like I’ve achieved this great balance, and just hope it continues.”