Lawyer: Americans can expect fair trial in S. Korea
PYEONGTAEK, South Korea
Before a South Korean judge sentenced a U.S. soldier to four years in prison for raping, sodomizing and beating a 66-year-old local woman recently, there was something he wanted the soldier to know.
The soldier, Army Pvt. Geronimo Ramirez, stood expressionless in his slightly wrinkled, green Class A uniform, clutching his black beret, and listened as Seoul Central District Court Judge Lee Han-ju spoke.
Ramirez, the judge explained, had been held to the same standards South Koreans face in court and had not been discriminated against because he’s an American soldier.
According to Ramirez’s defense lawyer and other attorneys in South Korea, U.S. servicemembers can indeed expect a fair trial here, but they also may face a gantlet of legal hazards that can include language and cultural differences and at least the possibility of anti-American bias.
Language ‘barrier’ a hazard
The vast majority of cases involving U.S. forces are crimes of violence and disorderliness under the influence of alcohol, said Brendon Carr, an American lawyer who is senior foreign legal consultant with the South Korean law firm Hwang Mok Park in Seoul.
“And in those cases, the U.S. servicemember is at a profound disadvantage for a number of reasons, all related to culture and language,” he said. Because most servicemembers can’t speak Korean, they can have a tough time making sure police don’t get the wrong picture of what occurred.
“So being able to order two beers and ask your girlfriend if she ate dinner is not enough to explain how an altercation happened and why you’re blameless,” he said.
And lawyers say court-appointed translators often have poor English skills and spotty qualifications.
Tribalism and lying witnesses
Beyond language difficulties is the prospect that South Koreans who give testimony might feel it culturally acceptable to lie, especially if it will increase their chances of winning bigger damages, Carr said.
“This culture,” Carr said, “does not place the same value on truth or view the truth through the same prism that Americans do. There is very little social disapproval of making false official statements in order to achieve an objective for your friend or relative or for a tribemate.
“Once it breaks down to ‘those Americans’ versus ‘us Koreans,’ many, many Koreans will perceive it as their duty to make sure that the Korean is the winner of the dispute. So there’s a lot of lying when witnesses come forward,” Carr said.
“Some people,” said Seoul attorney Jin Hyo-guen, “think that it’s their duty or their job to testify in a way the GI should be punished, severely” and beyond what’s warranted by what “actually happened.”
“Of course, there are some persons who think … favorably and amicably” toward U.S. servicemembers, Jin said. “But sometimes not.” Jin has represented numerous U.S. servicemembers in South Korean courts.
Another potential hazard is that some U.S. military defendants are viewed as violence-prone troublemakers unwilling to admit guilt. That can work against them at sentencing, said Carr.
“Because there’s such a public bias against them and a political desire to kick the United States in the teeth by kicking a soldier … ” said Carr, “we labor against this Korean domestic perception that soldiers are never punished.”
But there’s also the prospect that anti-American groups might try to pressure authorities against the accused servicemember, said Jin.
About three years ago, Jin represented a soldier who, while drunk, stabbed a Korean in the neck. At first, Korean investigators concluded the assault had not involved an intent to kill, so authorities charged the soldier with battery, Jin said.
But anti-American activist groups weighed in, pressing police and prosecutors to charge the soldier with attempted murder, Jin said, and the prosecutor changed his mind.
The soldier was convicted and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison, Jin said. Higher courts rejected his appeals.
A SOFA advantage?
Jin said he believes some prosecutors and judges fear they’ll be labeled “as a ‘pro-American’ or what they call ‘imperialist.’”
Compounding that problem is that some Koreans perceive that U.S. servicemembers are “more strongly protected than necessary” if they’re arrested, said Carr’s law partner, Son Doil, a lawyer who several years ago was a Gwangju District Court judge.
The U.S. military will provide the servicemember the chance to select a defense lawyer from a list of attorneys licensed to practice law in South Korea and will pay the lawyer a fixed fee.
When someone under the status of forces agreement appears for questioning or other legal proceedings, they are entitled to have a “SOFA representative” present.
“That,” said Carr, means that some sergeant from your unit will be there with you when you’re being interrogated … he’ll be sure that you’re not slapped in the face.”
In many cases, except those involving heinous crimes, servicemembers may receive leniency unless they do something to provoke the court, some of the lawyers said.
“They get lenient punishment, absolutely, I can tell you that,” said Kim Jong-pyo, an attorney in Seoul.
In addition, South Korean authorities often let U.S. servicemembers to remain with their units when they are not needed for questioning or court proceedings.
“The other guy,” Carr said, referring to Korean defendants, “is in a dank concrete-floor cell sleeping in there with seven other guys.”
U.S. servicemembers in South Korean prisons
Six U.S. servicemembers currently are serving time in South Korean prisons.
One was sentenced last month in Seoul for beating, sodomizing and raping an elderly South Korean woman.
Five were convicted in 2006 in Uijeongbu for a Christmas 2005 incident in which they robbed a taxi driver and then stuffed him in the trunk of his cab. Of those, four drew sentences of three and a half years. A fifth was sentenced to a four-year term, but first must finish serving 18 months for an unrelated conviction in South Korean court.
Also in 2006, one servicemember was imprisoned after conviction for sexual intercourse under pretense of marriage.
In 2005, none were imprisoned.
In 2004, two servicemembers were imprisoned in separate cases, one after being convicted of drunk driving and fleeing the scene of a crash that resulted in death. The other was convicted of attempted murder.
In addition, three servicemembers are currently in pre-trial confinement in South Korean jails.
Incidents that involved U.S. servicemembers and at least some type of investigation by South Korean police were as follows:
2006 215 incidents
2005 223 incidents
2004 280 incidents