Unsung Heroes of the Military Commissions: Paralegal Krystal Baker

If you hang around the military commissions long enough, you’re bound to hear some of the participants repeat a few mantras – whether it’s their opinions of the system, the oddities of life on Guantanamo Bay or some of the challenges of working on the biggest criminal case in U.S. history. For James Connell, the lead attorney for Sept. 11 defendant Ammar al Baluchi, it’s telling as many visitors to the island as possible that the most important people working on the case are not the ones you see arguing in court.

A prime example is LN1 Krystal Baker, a Navy paralegal who has been on the al Baluchi team since July 2014. (LN1 stands for Legalman First Class.)  Baker may not argue but she is not exactly behind the scenes; she has the necessary security clearances to be in the courtroom, which transmits an audio-and-visual feed to the court’s viewing gallery on a 40-second delay to prevent the spill of classified information. In fact, Baker is surely one of the busiest people in the courtroom. The 9/11 military commission – a massive and sprawling five-defendant death-penalty case that has unfolded over seven years of confusing pretrial litigation in a fledgling, controversial court system – is a challenging assignment that Connell makes even more demanding through his aggressive and creative approach to filing motions.

The al Baluchi team also likes using visual slides during oral arguments, which Baker typically orchestrates from the team’s defense table while Connell or another team attorney argues at a podium 20 feet away. With motions and slides containing both unclassified and classified information – meaning some versions are only appropriate for closed courtroom sessions without the public or the five defendants in attendance – Baker has to stay on her toes managing the team’s output.

Baker’s father and uncle both served in the Navy, as did her grandfather, who retired as a Master Chief after 32 years. Serving brings its challenges, including changing assignments. Baker will be moving off the case to a new paralegal assignment in Fort Meade, Md., this June. One benefit is that Fort Meade is one of the military sites that receives a closed circuit feed of the commission proceedings, so she will be able to check in on her former teammates once in a while. Baker also hopes to return to the Military Commissions Defense Organization, or MCDO as it’s known within the court system, as a civilian paralegal after she retires. Lawdragon interviewed Baker during the 33rd pretrial session in the Sept. 11 case, held in early February 2019.

Lawdragon: I know you had a family tradition with the Navy, but what else was your motivation for joining?

LN1 Krystal Baker: At the time I decided to join, I was going to college and working a part-time, minimum wage job. I was definitely interested in the money for school as well as being able to travel the world. So not only was it about following in my family’s footsteps, but also being able to continue my education for free, learn a trade, and have a career that both my family and I could be proud of.

LD: What did you do when you first joined?

KB:  I joined the Navy through what was then called the GTEP [Guaranteed Training Enlistment Program] program. In the program, you came in undesignated, without a specialty, and were guaranteed an “Accession School” of your choice that you qualified for but you first had to go out into the fleet for about 18 months. I was guaranteed to go to either LN or MA school – LN was for becoming a paralegal, MA was for Master-at-Arms, a.k.a military police, I could choose one or the other. I chose Legalman, or LN. In 2004 I went to school to become a paralegal, at the Naval Justice School in Newport, R.I.

LD: When you were deciding between the two, why did you choose LN? Were you already interested in the law in some way?

KB: It’s funny because when I first came in I was actually interested in law enforcement and was looking at going the military police route. Then, when I got out to the fleet and I saw what they did, it looked to me that you had to be higher ranking to do more of the law enforcement duties. The junior enlisted were doing things more like standing watch at the front gate, checking ID cards, and that really didn’t interest me at all.

In January 2003, I was pregnant with my son, and since I had the guaranteed school to become an LN or MA, my command sent me TDY [temporary duty] to the legal office to do on-the-job training, [OJT] in Everett, Wash., so I could get a sense of what paralegals do. That’s when I really changed my mind and knew that’s exactly what I wanted to do.

LD: What did you like about it?

KB:  I was very interested in the different types of law that they dealt with. I liked the fact it wasn’t limited to one area of law like you usually see in private practice. We dealt with everything in Legal Assistance from family law, landlord-tenant issues, immigration, step-parent adoptions, will and estate planning documents to also providing defense services for service members facing courts-martial and administrative separations. The job was very interesting and I definitely knew at that point that’s what I’d rather be doing as a career than military law enforcement. The Navy sent me to LN “A” School in May 2004 and when I finished my schooling I went right back to the legal office I came from returning as a Legalman Third Class.

LD: What did you like about being on the defense side? Did you ever do prosecution-side work?

KB: I've always been on the defense side. I have never been in a trial shop [prosecution side] in my career, thus far. I'm sure I would have liked my job either way. But I do enjoy working on the defense side of cases. I like the legal work and I like helping people. I’m a fair person.  I believe that everybody deserves a fair shot when they get in trouble.

LD: How did you come to the military commissions? Were you assigned there or did you have a choice, in terms of what you were doing at that point?

KB: I was assigned here. I didn't know much about the military commissions. Before I came here, I was on a ship. When I was up for orders, I was trying to get to the East Coast. I was told, "We have this job opening in the military commissions, if you'd like to go there." And I said, "Okay, no problem."

Then I did some more research once I knew I was going to be assigned here, however I didn't really know exactly what I was going to be doing until after I was given my orders to come here. When I found out exactly what the case was, what we would be working on, who we would be defending, I thought it was really interesting and that it would be a privilege to work on such an important case in the history of the United States.

LD: Did you have any reservations because of the magnitude of the case and who the defendants are?

KB:  I think everybody thinks about that. I didn't really know exactly what I would be doing and that I would be meeting with the defendant until they explained it more to me. I was wondering how things would be. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think it’s normal to feel hesitant. But once you get here and start working on the case, it's amazing the types of things that we do. I don’t think people understand what we do, and it’s hard to until you’re on this side of things. I started to understand more about defending the rule of law, human rights, international law and all these other issues that are so different than the military justice cases and the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) that military paralegals are used to. This case is one of, if not the most important case in U.S. history and I am privileged to have had the opportunity to participate in and contribute to defending the rule of law in such a significant case.

LD: Can you expand on that in terms of how it’s different?

KB: The magnitude of this case is like no other, it’s on such a bigger scale than anything we would ever deal with in the military, even though not everybody knows that this case is still going on – which is crazy to me. But it’s more of a civilian paralegal-type job. I think that's good for us, especially when we move on from the military. The motions practice, the meeting with the client, dealing with human rights and international law, which in the military – depending on where you're stationed – you may deal with some international law but not to this amount. It's a totally different creature and atmosphere.

LD: Can you tell us what the different parts of your job are?

KB: We do a lot different tasks, from filing motions to legal research. I specifically do a lot in the courtroom. I'm an active court participant. We prepare the courtroom. We prepare our attorneys for their arguments, including all the argument binders that you see in court. We take in a lot of the discovery, and do file and records management. We're the ones who are formatting the motions, making sure everything is where it needs to be, making sure all the attachments are there. And that they're correct, grammatically.

As you know, our team likes to do a lot of displays and slides in court. And we deal with a lot of classified information. So it's our job to ensure that documents are properly marked, whether it's classified or unclassified. I personally submit documents to the security officers for review prior to court to ensure that we're displaying the correct information in whatever form that we're currently in, whether in an open or closed session. It’s one of the biggest responsibilities we have, making sure we are displaying the right documents. There are times when the court security officers will redact parts of our displays and there are times we have both classified and unclassified slides. It's up to us, the individuals at the computer on the defense tables in court - which is usually me - ensuring that we are not showing classified information during an unclassified session.

LD: Whether it’s those presentations in court, or filing motions with the commission, and knowing whether it has to be done through a classified or unclassified network – that must be incredibly stressful, especially given the endless amounts of documents.

KB: I'm used to it by now. But yes, it is still stressful because nobody wants a spill and to be responsible for that. There's always some stress to it. Once you have the experience and have been doing it for a while, then it's not as stressful. We have our security officer on the team, and we always ask tons of questions. I have OCD – I am always checking and checking and double-checking to make sure that I have the exact right ones that I need.

LD: Some of the recent sessions have been short, but there are others, whether the session is one week or two, where dozens of motions are argued over really long days in court, both in public and closed sessions. That must be a difficult grind.

KB: It is, very much so. Especially when we're in court every day, from 9:00 in the morning to usually 17:00 or 18:00 at night. And then there are times you're in the office until late at night preparing for the next day.

LD: With a job that is so detail oriented, how do you stay sharp?

KB: You have to try and get enough sleep, which is not always the easiest here. The weather, the bugs, the sleeping arrangements are not the greatest. We have to work late often to make sure we are fully prepared for the next day. We work late making sure that everything is ready to go, we have the motions that we need, we have the displays for court that we need.

But you have to try to get some downtime in when you can. There are a couple of beautiful beaches here, if you can take 30 minutes and de-stress a little bit. This week, with it being a little slow, you get to go to the movies. You try to find those little things for downtime to refresh yourself, to not think about the case, even though you're still here and you're surrounded by it. You have to try and get your mind off things, just for a little bit so you can come back the next day ready to go.

LD: I know that like everybody else, most of your work time-wise is back at the military commission defense offices in Virginia, working on motions and research and other tasks. But still, you are here at GTMO a lot – how do you make that work with a family?

KB: It is very stressful. I could not do it without the support of my husband. I have a wonderful husband, who is a civilian and who is fortunately able to take care of all four of our children when I have to travel and come down here. That's honestly the only way. The couples that are dual-military, I don't know how they do it because you've got both people going every which way all the time. I've got a good support system.

LD: Is this the first time you've developed a relationship with a defendant for so long? I assume you’ve gotten to know him differently than with other cases that moved much quicker.

KB: Yes, in that way this case is much different than any other case we have in the military. With a court martial, you get a case that may last a couple months. This is definitely the longest case I've ever had, and the first death penalty client I've ever had.

LD: Has your team told the client that you'll be leaving and what did he say?

KB: Yes. He just laughed. I was supposed to leave a year ago, then I got an extension. He just jokes about it like, "Okay, we'll see when it actually happens.”

LD: Of course defense teams are much smaller in simpler cases. From the point of view as a paralegal, what do you think makes your team work well on a case as big as this?

KB: Our team, personally, it feels like a family. Everybody very much cares about one another. I think you have to be able to be open to ideas and suggestions from anybody and our team is, thankfully. You don't have to be an attorney, you don't have to be an expert for them to listen to you and take on your ideas. Everybody has to work well together, and we do. I think a lot depends on personalities and stuff like that, too. Our team meshes very well together. Everybody believes that everybody's job is as important as the next. The attorneys don't believe that they're any more important than you are because they're an attorney and you're not. Everybody on the team is very valuable. Everybody's job is very much needed and necessary.

LD: You mentioned getting an extension one time. What happened that you are not able to stay?

KB: I originally had three-year orders here, and I extended once. I attempted to extend a second time, as I only have a few years left until I retire. Unfortunately, they denied it, so I am going to have to move on to a new assignment, to Fort Meade, Maryland. I can at least still come and watch the hearings even though I won't be a part of it anymore. We were all hoping the second request was going to be approved but it wasn't. I will be sad to be leaving.

LD: Why?

KB: I think this job will be the one with the greatest significance in my career. Like I said, it's not like anything I've ever done before. I have really enjoyed my time here and being a part of this, the biggest case in U.S. history. When you work on a case this significant, you really would love to be a part of it through the end. That's what's hard with being in military – people come and go all the time.

But when I do retire, I’ll just be up the road. If this is still around, I hope to come back if there is a position available. My plan was to get a federal paralegal job of some sort when I got out. My first preference would be to come back here to the commissions as a civilian paralegal.

LD: For someone considering a job like this, what is required? What does it take to be a successful paralegal on a difficult case like this?

KB: You need very much an attention to detail, and you need to be educated. You need to be able to think on your toes, to change at a moment’s notice – especially in a case like this, where things are constantly changing. You have to be flexible. You have to be willing to work long hours. And you really have to care about the work you are doing and the significance of your work – it is not enough to just be assigned here and come to work every day because you have to. It's not just a paper-pusher type job. If you don't genuinely believe in the work that we do here at the MCDO there's no reason for you to be doing this job. You should legitimately believe in defending the rule of law and fair justice for all and with the extreme scale and voluminous work load of this case, your work ethic and work product need to show that. If you’re just here for a paycheck, this is definitely not a job for you. I know it is hard for some people, like you asked about, coming here, working on this case, having whatever reservations you may have. But if you don't believe in what you are doing, you should not be doing it.

About the author: John Ryan (john@lawdragon.com) is a co-founder and the Editor-in-Chief of Lawdragon Inc., where he oversees all web and magazine content and provides regular coverage of the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay. When he’s not at GTMO, John is based in Brooklyn. He has covered complex legal issues for 20 years and has won multiple awards for his journalism. View our staff page