Chief defense counsel released from contempt sentence in USS Cole case

Brig. Gen. John Baker was serving a 21-day sentence that began Wednesday after the military judge in the USS Cole case found Baker in contempt of court in a showdown over who has the authority to release attorneys of record. The 50-year-old career military officer, who is the second highest-ranking lawyer in the Marine Corps, is chief defense counsel for military commissions.

The release was ordered just before a hearing in Washington, D.C. on a habeas corpus unlawful detention petition filed by a group of criminal defense lawyers. However, the sentence could be re-imposed later, and Baker’s contempt conviction was not vacated.

U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth declined to rule further on Baker’s case during the hearing Friday, saying the military official in charge of the war court made a “wise decision” by releasing Baker. But he implied that if the military didn’t take further action in a “reasonable” amount of time, he might further review the case later.

“I’m not going to stand down. I’m simply going to give the military time to clean up its own act,” Lamberth said. “And its first step was a good one.”

.. Baker has refused an order by the USS Cole case judge, Air Force Col. Vance Spath, to rescind his decision to release three civilian defense lawyers from the case. At issue is whether he or Spath actually has the power to let war court lawyers of record go. Spath says that’s the role of a judge. Baker says in the case of military commissions, the tribunal system set up after the Sept. 11 attacks, it is solely his domain.