I always knew I wanted to be like my grandfather, Richard Beliles, who was a great Kentucky trial lawyer. He was the type of lawyer you read about or see on TV — defending the poor against the most serious criminal accusations, or defending African-Americans accused of terrible crimes in a community riddled with racism. He always occupied an Atticus Finch type dimension in my mind, both in his success in the courtroom and his never ending pursuit of justice for the disenfranchised.
My other grandfather, Wendell Golden, was a Methodist missionary to several African countries from 1954 to 1989. He was a vocal advocate for justice and fought against mistreatment of the Africans by the colonial countries. This led to his church being vandalized in 1961 and his arrest by the Portuguese secret police for supporting the Africans in their revolt against colonial rule. He was imprisoned for months before being expelled from the continent. For the next 50 years, my grandfather never lost his passion for helping the poor and the under privileged, and he instilled that principle in all of his children and grandchildren.
The legacy of my grandfathers has inspired me to live a life dedicated to fighting racism and injustice in our society. I am proud to say that my background, education, and capabilities in the courtroom allow me to continue those noble goals everyday.
I never considered joining the military until September 2001 when we woke up to watching those towers come down and the world change. I was in my third year of college, and my childhood best friend and I showed up at the ROTC office the next day to answer our country’s call. We knew then that the world had changed and that our place was in our nation’s service, like so many others in our generation that have answered the call since that day.
I had the privilege to attend the prestigious University of Virginia for my undergraduate degree as well as my law school degree. It was in law school where I realized that I had the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of my grandfather by becoming a true trial lawyer. The courtroom was exciting and intriguing. It was fantastic to know that my commitment to ROTC in undergrad paved the road to my JAG career upon my successful graduation from law school.
I served for over a decade in uniform as a military lawyer. I joined the JAG Corps out of law school and passed the bar exam at only 23 years old. I was assigned to Andersen AFB, Guam where I quickly became an Area Defense Counsel, becoming one of the youngest in the Air Force at 25 years old when I took position. Looking back, it’s remarkable how much responsibility I was given at such a young age and with so little actual experience. I was thrown into the courtroom, as my skill for trying cases became clear quite early, despite my limited experience. As the Area Defense Counsel on Guam, I represented clients across the Pacific theater from Diego Garcia to Malaysia, to the Philippines, to Okinawa, Korea, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Alaska. I did courts-martial across the Pacific during that time period and became devoted to defending my clients to the best of my ability. I fell in love with the opportunity to defend someone’s rights, and came to love the stage and pageantry that a courtroom afforded me. After two years in that position, I was recognized as the best Area Defense Counsel in the Air Force in the Pacific.
Because of my success in that position, I was elevated to the Air Force’s most coveted and respected position for courtroom attorneys: Senior Trial Counsel (prosecutor). I was stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, one of only two such positions covering all of Europe and the war-fighting missions in the Middle East. It was the crown jewel of assignments in the Air Force JAG Corps. I prosecuted and oversaw all of the sexual assault, child abuse, and homicide cases in that AOR for the next four years. I traveled extensively and was in the courtroom almost every other week, sometimes multiple weeks back to back. For me, being a prosecutor meant seeking a conviction where it was appropriate, but also ensuring the heavy-hand of the Government did not trample or compromise the rights of our servicemembers. It was about pursuing the truth and achieving justice. If the man I was prosecuting wasn’t guilty, I wasn’t going to prosecute him. I wasn’t going to let an injustice happen. And I was never going to win dirty. If I won, it was going to be fair and by the rules.
I was hand-selected to prosecute the Wilkerson case at Aviano Air Base in Italy in 2012. That case is one of the most famous and publicized military cases in the last few decades. I tried the case alongside my Colonel who has served as a powerful mentor to me. It was a transformative experience that showed me that justice must be pursued no matter the cost to reputation or career. Today, I proudly stand in the courtroom on the opposite side, but the lessons remain the same — my pursuit of justice will almost always bring judgment and derision from those who disagree, but the true test of character is the willingness to plow ahead and fight for righteousness.
The philosophy at our firm is different than many of the others out there. We do not consider the goals of the military to eradicate sexual assault a joke or inappropriate. Instead, we know it is a noble desire that our society at large should support. However, the fight we have is in individual cases where the pressure rests heavy on our shoulders to ensure our clients are fully protected by their Constitutional rights and the fundamental need to ensure fairness. We cannot allow the lives of innocent people to be destroyed in a stampede to appear serious about sexual assault. Justice must always be our goal, no matter where it leads us.