Spring 2008 Issue
A Few Good Men
Former Army JAG Lee Schinasi goes from the courtroom to the classroom to train the next generation of lawyers
By Jeremy Jones
It's been more than 40 years since Barry University Law Professor Lee Schinasi graduated from the University of Toledo School of Law. But unlike some students who are faced with the dilemma of what to do with their lives after college, the United States' involvement in the controversial Vietnam War made Schinasi's decision much easier; he chose to enlist in the Army and become a member of the Judge Advocate General's Corps (JAG).
It was 1968, Schinasi's first year in law school, and young men all over the country were being drafted to serve in Vietnam. With an Army draft number of 43, he knew it was inevitable that he'd soon get the call to head to war, a scary thought for a young man who had never even seen a soldier or a tank. It wasn't long before the reality of war hit close to home – or his classroom for that matter.
"A third of my class in law school was drafted right out of their seats," recalls Schinasi. "My goal was not to go to Vietnam. The concept of war in the ‘60s, because of the draft and the political issues involved, was totally different than it is today."
So to avoid being drafted, Schinasi joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), which meant that after law school he owed the United States government four years of his life, but at least it would keep him out of Vietnam. Twenty-three years and 13 moves later, Schinasi would retire from the Army as a full colonel and look back on his career as an Army JAG as the most fascinating experience of his life.
Schinasi began his JAG career at a military training facility, known as the Judge Advocate General's School, on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. It was here that Schinasi spent his first 10 weeks training for a Bar course on military and federal law.
After that, his military career took off, landing him his first assignment in El Paso, TX. Over the years Shinasi was transferred to many locations throughout the world. From his three-year stint at the Pentagon as legal advisor to the Chief of Army intelligence to his six years spent in the field with soldiers in Panama and Germany, Schinasi's life as an Army JAG allowed him to experience a different side to practicing law than he would have as a civilian attorney.
Sure, both sides represent and prosecute defendants, but being in the military gave Schinasi an advantage: an unlimited amount of money and resources to try and defend cases. "We had the resources we needed to prosecute and defend cases. The resources were there worldwide," he said. Unlimited resources weren't the only difference between military court and civilian court. While soldiers have the same appellate rights as civilians, any solider convicted of a felony automatically gets the case appealed.
Military juries, Schinasi explains, are also different. Instead of having a group of your peers hear your case and deliver a verdict like in civilian court, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, passed by Congress, requires soldiers to be judged by a jury consisting of military personnel higher in rank than the defendants themselves. That defendant also has the right to a military lawyer (also known as detailed counsel,) free of charge, can request a specific military lawyer if the lawyer is available, and can hire a civilian lawyer at their own expense. In essence, a military defendant can be represented by three different lawyers. Other than those exceptions, Schinasi says military court follows the same federal guidelines as civilian court.
"Everything the military does has a federal foundation and is based on federal statute, passed by congress and signed by the president," Schinasi said. "It's a very complex soup, and to get that soup to work is the job of the military lawyers. If we do something wrong you read about it in the paper."
For a man who has represented hundreds of defendants and been involved in thousands of cases, Schinasi has seen his share of interesting and disturbing military cases. The most disturbing to him occurred while he was stationed in Germany, and it's a case, he says, the German media referred to as the "most heinous" criminal offense in post World War II Germany. While Schinasi didn't prosecute the case, it happened in his jurisdiction, which put him in a supervisory role like that of a U.S. Attorney.
The case, a triple murder, rape, robbery and arson involved a young soldier, two of his fellow soldiers and one of their wives. After a night of drinking, the three came back to one of the soldiers' houses. A short time later, after everyone had passed out, the young solider raped the wife of his fellow soldier, killed her and the other two soldiers, robbed them of their money and then burned the house down in an attempt to cover up the triple homicide. Schinasi remembers his curiosity about meeting the person who committed the crime, imagining the person to be the most evil, sadistic person he'd ever meet. He was surprised by what he saw. "This kid looked like a choir boy," Schinasi recalls. "After looking into his background it turns out he was a choir boy."
Forensics proved the soldier committed the crimes, and he subsequently confessed to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to life in prison. Typically when a soldier is convicted of a felony they spend the rest of their enlistment time at Ft. Leavenworth prison in Kansas, says Schinasi, and are then transferred to a federal prison for the remainder of their sentence.
Schinasi's role as an Army JAG didn't stop at defending and prosecuting soldiers. One of his biggest cases involved the highly publicized operation Yellow Fruit in which he represented the Army. In the case, which Schinasi can say little about, the Army was prosecuting high ranking military personnel in the special operations and intelligence community for white collar fraud. According to Schinasi, several military officials, some colonels and generals, were being tried for stealing money from the government. A 1987 report by The New York Times put the amount at more than $2 million. The case lasted three years and led to the conviction of some of those involved.
For Schinasi, as an Army JAG, it never mattered whether he was prosecuting or defending a soldier. The important thing, he said, was that you did both to the best of your ability. But something that did matter was the feeling he got when he had tried a case successfully. "The first time you represent a client and the jury acquits them is a feeling you never forget. You never forget those feelings of protecting innocent clients and society," he said. "You really feel like you've done something to make the system work correctly."
While Schinasi's experience in the military taught him a lot, he says one of the most important things he discovered during that time was his passion for teaching, which he has done a lot of. He spent a combined five years as an associate professor of law and vice dean and dean of academics at The Judge Advocate General's School; nine years at the University of Miami School of Law as an assistant professor of clinical education and director of continuing legal education; and now his final stop at Barry, where he has worked since 2004 as an associate clinical professor of law and director of clinical placements.
Having someone with Schinasi's experience at the Law School adds to the diverse faculty that already teach there, says Dean Leticia Diaz. With a plethora of experienced lawyers from various backgrounds as teachers, students are subjected to the knowledge and experience that all the Law School's faculty bring with them.
"Our students greatly benefit from the fact that our professors come from diverse backgrounds. It is important for future lawyers to see many perspectives so they will be knowledgeable and balanced advocates for their clients," says Diaz.
And it's that "balance" that has helped Schinasi find his niche at Barry. With so many talented and respected faculty members, Schinasi says students at the Law School are getting a valuable education from people who are committed to seeing each of them succeed.
"The thing that attracted me to Barry was how sincere this place was. The faculty truly cares about the students," he Schinasi. "It's the healthiest educational environment I've seen."
His experience in the military has prepared him for nearly every test he's undertaken, especially his job at Barry, where he runs a clinical program that places students in public defenders and state attorneys offices across the state. Schinasi also teaches criminal law, torts and evidence, a subject he has co-authored a few books on. Recollecting back to 1968, Schinasi, who is now 62, doesn't regret making the decision to join the military. In fact, he can't imagine life any other way.
"It's been an adventure, and I would definitely do it again. It accounts for why I'm here today."