Profile in Courage: Alaric Piette (L’12)

February 27, 2018 —

Navy Lt. Alaric Piette (L'12) Navy Lt. Alaric Piette (L'12)

As Georgetown Law’s 2018 National Security Crisis Law Invitational gets underway this week, we reached out to Navy Lieutenant Alaric Piette (L’12), an alum of the Georgetown Law simulation who has made headlines recently regarding his representation of an accused terrorist. 

In a February 5 New York Times article, Georgetown Law Professor Abbe Smith, Piette’s former professor and mentor, applauded the “courageous and ethical representation” by her former student. Smith told us that she “could not be prouder of how Piette has conducted himself on behalf of Guantanamo detainee Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri — under very difficult circumstances.” In our interview below, Piette talks about his representation of his client, the influence of Smith’s clinic and the lessons learned from Professor Laura Donohue’s National Security Crisis Law simulation.


Navy Lt. Alaric Piette (L’12) joined the Judge Advocate General Corps out of Georgetown Law with the intention of making it to the military commissions in Guantanamo Bay. His chance came last April, when he was added to the defense team for the accused mastermind of the USS Cole bombing. 

Things did not go as planned. In October, the rest of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri’s defense team withdrew in a dispute over the confidentiality of client communications. For the next four months, the defense consisted of Piette’s sole objection, repeated dozens of times per pre-trial hearing, that he was unqualified to handle the death-penalty case.  

The former Navy SEAL’s approach drew scorn from the prosecution and headlines from the media, including a feature-length profile in the New York Times. Eventually, it proved to be the last straw for the presiding judge, who halted the proceedings indefinitely in mid-February after accusing the entire defense team of strategically “executing a revolution to the system.” 

Piette takes issue with that characterization.

“A ‘strategy’ implies a choice,” he says. “I really had no choice, because ethically, I am not qualified to proceed.”

Under the regulations implementing the Military Commissions Act of 2009, defendants in death-penalty cases at Guantanamo are entitled, at all stages of the proceeding, to learned counsel – an attorney with experience handling capital cases. Piette has none, and believes that proceeding without it would violate not only the military regulation but the JAG professional conduct order on competence.

“The ethics rules are there to protect the client,” Piette says. “Even if it means standing up there and becoming famous for being incompetent.”

He attributes his “client-centered” focus to Professor Abbe Smith and Professor Vida Johnson at Georgetown’s Criminal Defense and Prisoner Advocacy Clinic. More importantly, he says, the clinic “was where I found meaning in my life.”

Piette had joined the SEALs immediately after graduating from high school in 1997 and signed on for a second term after the Cole was hit in October 2000, killing 17 Americans. He knew people on the team that took down Osama bin Laden in May 2011. 

By that point, Piette was finishing up his second year at Georgetown Law. After taking Adjunct Professor Abbe Lowell’s course on Advanced Criminal Procedure and Litigation, he thought he wanted to be a prosecutor. He had signed up for Smith’s criminal defense clinic on the advice of a friend, but a career in defense “wasn’t even close to being on my radar,” he says.

In the clinic, he met his first client.

“I remember seeing her there, shivering from heroin withdrawal,” Piette says. “I was no longer a practicing Catholic, but at that moment, a lot of those teachings finally clicked. I understood about being an instrument of peace, and serving others, and that salvation and grace come in strange and unexpected ways.”  

Piette’s other major influences at Georgetown were Professor Laura Donohue and former Chief Judge James Baker of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, whom he considers his mentors.

Donohue’s National Security Law Crisis simulation taught “the importance of being in the room, of not being afraid to speak up,” Piette says. The simulation is designed to get students “thinking like principals,” to consider different perspectives and the context and consequences of their actions. 

“From the clinic, the simulation and my JAG experience, I believe that bad decisions happen because people don’t do what they know to be right,” Piette says. “If that happens in the simulation, you can talk about it afterward. That gives you the courage to do what you know is right in real life.”

While the proceedings in Nashiri’s case are temporarily suspended, Piette says he is sticking with his client.  

“We'll be back in court soon enough,” he says.

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