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WikiLeaks trial is high-profile case for low-profile lawyer

Private First Class Bradley Manning, 25, (in beret obscured behind security) leaves the first day of his trial at Fort Meade in Maryland, Ju
Private First Class Bradley Manning, 25, (in beret obscured behind security) leaves the first day of his trial at Fort Meade in Maryland, Ju

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Private First Class Bradley Manning was seeking a civilian defense attorney to bolster his government-appointed legal team in 2010, he considered a number of lawyers experienced in courts-martial.

His aunt, herself a lawyer, helped vet names of possible lawyers for the case suggested by Army veterans and activist supporters. The family fielded unsolicited offers from attorneys eager to take the high-profile case in which Manning is accused of passing more 700,000 classified files to WikiLeaks in the biggest unauthorized release of secret files in U.S. history.

Eventually, Manning settled on a low-profile choice: David Coombs, a Providence, Rhode Island, attorney who had been in private practice for only a year after more than a decade as an Army prosecutor and defense attorney.

Though Coombs' name was unfamiliar to the public, and even to the defense bar at large, he had built a reputation as a meticulous and thoughtful attorney among his Army colleagues.

"He's probably one of the most organized attorneys I've ever seen," said Jonathan Crisp, a Pennsylvania attorney who worked alongside Coombs as a judge advocate general. "I guarantee he's probably read every piece of evidence. Some attorneys will wing it - he's definitely not in that category."

Manning's court-martial began this week and will resume on Monday.

After previously pleading guilty to 10 lesser offenses, Manning still stands accused on 21 counts, including the most serious one of aiding the enemy. He faces a possible life sentence without parole if convicted.

Some legal experts questioned Coombs' strategy in allowing Manning to plead guilty to 10 lesser charges in February without the promise of any concessions in return.

The voluntary move, known as a "naked plea," seemed aimed at gaining leniency from the judge at sentencing while forcing the government to prove only the most difficult charges, including claims he intended to aid al Qaeda.

Military law experts warned the pleas could also backfire by making it easier for prosecutors to prove their case.

As the trial unfolded, Coombs stood out as the only lawyer in civilian clothes, though his closely cropped hair hinted at his military background and his current status as an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel.

Coombs has sought to portray Manning as an idealistic young soldier grappling with a moral dilemma when he gained access to the documents in Iraq.

Friends of Coombs said his calm, low-key demeanor has served him well in handling the spotlight's glare.

"You don't see him going out there and making the case about him and not his client," said Jon Jackson, a close friend who, like Coombs, is a former judge advocate and a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve.

Coombs is not responding to press inquiries during the trial but has used a blog at his law office's website to communicate with the public, post copies of defense motions, and provide updates on his client's well-being.

On the eve of trial, he thanked supporters and concluded with a message in all capital letters: "I am Bradley Manning."

COOL UNDER PRESSURE

Several former colleagues said Coombs has always cut a polished, comfortable figure in the courtroom, keeping theatrics to a minimum.

"I would bet very good money that Dave's not feeling any more pressure than he would for any other case," said Tom Fleener, a Colorado attorney who as an Army defense lawyer opposed Coombs when he was working as a military prosecutor. "That's just Dave's personality."

Crisp recalled a case in which he and Coombs were defending a client accused of rape who attempted suicide by immolating himself with lighter fluid.

"He didn't freak out," Crisp said. Instead, Coombs got to work researching whether the trial would be required to continue without his client's presence.

On his blog in 2009, Coombs said the incident reinforced the importance of developing a rapport with one's client.

"A defense counsel is likely the most educated, responsible and attentive person in the client's life at the time," he said.

A pro-Manning group known as Courage to Resist has raised almost $1.2 million on his behalf; approximately $265,000 had gone to pay Coombs' fees through May, with the balance spent on the group's staff, advertising and outreach. Another $57,000 in donations had gone directly to a legal trust fund.

Jeff Paterson, who runs Courage to Resist, said WikiLeaks gave more than $10,000 early in the case, while another $75,000 came from an anonymous donor. Most of the money has come from a network of 20,000 donors, many of whom opposed the war in Iraq.

Before leaving active duty for private practice, Coombs was offered the chance to be a military judge, a sign that his superiors in the Army recognized his talent, said Amy Fitzgibbons, a former colleague.

He spent several years teaching law at the Judge Advocate General's School in Virginia and currently holds adjunct positions there and at Roger Williams School of Law in Rhode Island, where his wife, Tanya Monestier, is also a law professor.

The judge on the trial, Denise Lind, said during a pretrial hearing last year that Coombs might have taught her classified information course at JAG school.

"You look familiar," she said, before adding, with some polite embarrassment, that she didn't really remember the class.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; editing by Andrew Hay)

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