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UW College of Law Graduate Receives National Award, Helps Win Military Case

December 9, 2015
group of soldiers in desert camo standing under a camo net
Maj. Jessica Martz, right, a UW College of Law graduate, briefs her company during a recent training session. Martz is a staff judge advocate of the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Africa in Spain. (United States Marine Corps Photo)

Maj. Jessica Martz has had quite a year serving as a military attorney.

First, the 2011 University of Wyoming College of Law graduate, who has family in the area and is originally from Oakland, Calif., and another UW law graduate and a UW College of Law professor, defended a female Marine Corps drill instructor on multiple charges that could have derailed the defendant’s military career. Following a grueling two-week trial, the sergeant was acquitted. Then, Martz received the Federal Bar Association’s Younger Lawyer Award.

UW College of Law Professor Steve Easton, who nominated Martz for the award, says that it is “rather unusual, though not completely unheard of,” for a military lawyer to receive the Younger Lawyer recognition.

The Federal Bar Association membership consists almost entirely of civilian lawyers -- like those who work for the Department of Justice and other federal agencies, and those from private practice who litigate in civilian federal courts, Easton says.

head portrait of Maj. Jessica Martz

Jessica Martz

“It is my understanding that it is even more unusual for a military defense attorney to receive this award,” he says. “This is a rather big deal, because this is a national award that any of the thousands of lawyers under the age of 35, who are employed by the federal government, are eligible for but, only a few receive. This national award for a recent UW College of Law graduate is truly a high honor.”

Martz, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., with a B.S. degree (2003) in English and an M.A. degree (2007) in American history from American Public University, is a staff judge advocate of the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Africa in Spain.

As a deployed attorney overseas, she advises the commanders and staff of her unit on the rules of engagement, international and operational law, contract and fiscal law, administrative and civil law, and military justice.

Martz’s national award was based largely -- but not exclusively -- on her work defending Sgt. Maria Vega (fictional name, to protect the actual defendant from publicity that some might consider negative, Easton says), a Marine Corps drill instructor who faced 28 counts in a South Carolina military courtroom last December. Most of the counts involved alleged assaults of recruits during boot camp and violations of the Marine Corps’ recruit training order, which is more than 100 pages long.

Martz and another recent UW College of Law graduate, Capt. Hannah Stephens, from Loveland, Colo., were assigned to defend Vega. Because the case was so large, with more than 70 listed witnesses, they asked Easton to help with the case.

Although it was widely assumed that Vega would be found guilty of multiple counts, her UW defense team was convinced of her innocence.

“We faced an uphill battle, because a two-thirds vote of the jurors, called ‘members’ in military trials, is sufficient for conviction, unlike civilian trials that require a unanimous vote for conviction,” Easton says.

After motions to dismiss some counts, 20 counts remained, but the members found Vega not guilty on all charges.

“If only two-thirds of the members had found Sgt. Vega guilty on a single one or more of the 20 counts, her Marine Corps career would have been over,” Easton says. “She might have spent as much as 25-plus years in the brig.”

Easton credits Martz’s UW College of Law training as the key to winning a favorable verdict in military court.

“I seriously doubt that there is another law school in the country that could point to two recent graduates trying a jury trial in the military or anywhere else with one of their law professors,” he says. “This story fits right into what is special about the University of Wyoming College of Law: We teach our students not only legal theory, but also the skills they can use to be successful in the practice of law.”

He called Martz and Stephens “heroes” for winning the case.

“What they did in taking on a case with almost, but ultimately not quite, insurmountable challenges underscores the things that are best about our justice system, the Marine Corps, and the University of Wyoming and its College of Law,” Easton says. “When Sgt. Vega’s career as a volunteer member of our armed forces was very much in peril, it was the University of Wyoming College of Law that provided the defense team that saved that career.”

While she was a law student, Martz worked in UW’s Prosecution Assistance Clinic, one of six clinic programs that give all UW law students the opportunity to practice law before graduating. As a student in the clinic, Martz briefed and argued a case before the Wyoming Supreme Court.

Martz says working in the Prosecution Assistance Clinic, and taking Easton’s trial practice course, prepared her for trial work. She also was raising a family at the time.

“Trial work is all consuming but, when you have kids and other responsibilities, you have to balance trial work with your daily responsibilities. Getting a taste of that during law school at UW really prepared me for striking that balance and facilitated the ability to be successful in representing my clients,” she says. “I took as many of Professor Easton’s classes as I could before I graduated because he makes hard work extremely fun. His trial practice class was challenging, but he made it so much fun because he’s so passionate about it and a true expert on how to advocate.”

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