Vinson & Elkins



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(Am Law 200 Rank)
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Vinson & Elkins (45)


Early on the morning of March 4, 2007, Marine Captain Vincent Noble's company was driving across Afghanistan's Nangahar Province when a minivan rigged with bombs exploded near the lead vehicle of the convoy. Afghan insurgents shot at Noble's 30-man unit from the roadside. The ensuing firefight left one American soldier wounded and three Afghan militants dead.

The Am Law Pro Bono 100Media reports quoted Afghans who accused Noble's men of using excessive force and firing indiscriminately at residents of the area. These stories claimed that the Afghan death toll was 19 and consisted of civilians, not insurgents. The allegations landed Noble, the platoon's commander, in a Marine Corps court of inquiry.

The purpose of this court was to "look at, review, and analyze through sworn testimony the evidence gathered by the government" about the ambush in Afghanistan, says Knox Nunnally, a Houston-based Vinson & Elkins partner who decided to represent Noble after his son, a Marine, told him about Noble's situation. The court of inquiry is an ancient military procedure, but before Noble's case, it hadn't been used by the Marine Corpsin 50 years. (The last session, in 1956, investigated the drowning deaths of six Marine recruits at the Parris Island base.) A jury of three Marine officers, all with combat experience, would decide if Noble was in dereliction of his duties during his unit's response to the ambush. A guilty verdict in a court of inquiry could lead to more serious charges or a court-martial for the defendant.

During the month-long proceeding in early 2008, Nunnally relied on 5,000 pages of investigation materials and 50 witness testimonies—some obtained from Afghan citizens through videoconferences—to argue against the government's allegations that Noble's men used excessive force and killed 19 Afghan civilians.

In late May 2008 the jury determined that Noble had acted appropriately during the ambush and had commanded his men in accordance with the rules of engagement. Noble has since returned to active duty.

"This is the best thing I've ever done as a lawyer," says Nunnally, a litigator who's been practicing for more than 40 years. "The effect of the Marine court of inquiry not only absolved Noble, it cleared the names of the other 29 men involved."

—Claire Zillman | July 1, 2009

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