Just over 10 years ago Kimberley Motley swapped a life of practising law in one of America's most dangerous cities, for legal work in one of the world's most dangerous places.
She was 32 years old at the time, a former ‘Miss Wisconsin’, and a mother of three who'd never been outside the US. She went on to become the first foreign lawyer working in the deeply conservative environment of Afghanistan.
Motley has now written a memoir, Lawless, about her extraordinary career. She's also been the subject of a documentary called, Motley's Law.
Growing up in Milwaukee, she says she was surrounded by crime, people using and selling drugs, random illegal searches by police and a lot of kids in single-parent households.
“There are certain things that people didn’t have to explain to me in terms of how the system works, how drug deals go down, I was a criminal defence attorney … these are things that I saw as a kid it didn’t have to be explained.
“On the flip side of that, I was also very well versed on how police would behave and how they were supposed to behave within those environments, so that was another thing that I think gave me a leg up into being a criminal defence attorney and representing my clients.”
But that still didn’t make fighting for justice and representing clients as a public defender any easier under what she calls a “very broken” system.
“For instance, we represented anywhere between 250-300 clients, per year, per attorney, so that inevitably puts attorneys in a position where you are ineffective in so many cases because you simply don’t have the time to properly represent all your clients … it’s very stressful.”
On the other hand, it became a good training ground that helped propel her to be effective while working in Afghanistan, Motley says.
One memorable case for her before she left for the Middle East was the case of a 17-year-old who had shot another boy, she says.
The boy had been getting a haircut just before prom, and the men in the shop were admiring a gun, which was then handed to him, and while was looking at it he pulled the trigger, killing another teenager who was also getting ready for prom, she says.
However, she says that despite the 17-year-old wanting to help the boy he shot, he was told to leave and even when he got home, he was told to leave the area. Instead, he turned himself in and when the police asked him to write a confession, he wrote a letter to the mother of the boy he shot.
“It was just another very humble, mature and sad situation but in so many ways encompassed the environment that I grew up in Milwaukee, where you have a lot of people in bad situations, making poor decisions and where guns are prevalent … it’s just one of those crimes that didn’t have to happen and should not have happened.”
Motley read that letter in court. The 17-year-old then received a three-year prison sentence with three years’ probation, she says, which “was the best situation that he could have”.
After that case, she decided to take up a role in Afghanistan in 2008, but the only thing she knew about the country was what she saw on the news and TV.
“I was very scared, I was thinking I was sort of going to be in an ultra-conservative, misogynistic environment … and that they wouldn’t be super open to what America and other countries were trying to impose on them.
“But I found things to be somewhat different, in 2008, I found the Afghan people lovely, and they were very open to working with foreigners, there still was misogyny unfortunately, women were very oppressed and still are very much oppressed, but it wasn’t as violent as I thought it would be.”
She says she worked hard to earn respect and build up her reputation there before launching into her work - by going to the prisons and talking to inmates about their experiences with the system, observing courtrooms and asking questions.
“I think part of the reason why I earned respect was because I was there to learn, I was there to listen and I think everyone I came across [was] willing to teach me and show me how things work but in addition to that, they would also want to know about America, so they would ask me questions and I would share that so it was a very reciprocal relationship, but I was sort of receiving more than I was giving information.
“I think that really helped, to see that I wasn’t an American, or I wasn’t a foreigner, that was there to tell them what to do, that I was a foreigner trying to learn what they were doing.
“I tried to maintain who I was and who I am and I think frankly that’s another reason why I was given respect because I wasn’t there pretending to be something that I’m not, and people can see that when you do that.”
Over time, Motley became involved in cases that became landmark victories, not just for her clients, but for women, she says.
One such case involved a girl who was raped at a young age, charged with adultery by force and had been given a 12-year sentence, on top of which the judges wanted her to marry the attacker, Motley says.
She says she helped the girl, her client, take the case to the Supreme Court in Afghanistan.
“In Afghanistan, even though there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of women who had been convicted of being victims of rape, if you are a victim of rape you are not supposed to be charged with adultery and that’s according to law.
“So I brought that up and the Supreme Court agreed to a point that she shouldn’t have been charged with it, but they still gave her a three-year prison sentence. So, once they did that, we then appealed the case to then-president [Hamid] Karzai for a pardon, and long story short, president Karzai did award [her] a pardon and she was the first female that was ever given a pardon for what they call a morals crime case in Afghanistan.
“Months later, the president issued a presidential decree where he essentially said running away is no longer a crime, because there were women who were going to prison because they would go to a store, for instance, and they wouldn’t get permission from an adult male and then they would get arrested for running away, so he decriminalised that.”
Usually in her practice, Motley says, she argues her cases by trying to put the judge or courtroom in the shoes of her client, and for the cases of rape victims in Afghanistan that she’s represented it was particularly difficult to do.
“It’s really more arguing the legal dynamics of the case and understanding how I can put this 60-year-old judge, who’s very anti-women, in the shoes of my client to make him feel like he’s her in that situation and that shouldn’t have happened to her and that she has a legal right for that not happen to her.
“I found that has been somewhat challenging at times … the different cultural nuances is what’s most challenging of any cases that I represent people on, and that includes cases in the US as well.
“Culture is not just confined to ethnicity, culture is about what that person is bringing to court – the judges, the prosecutors and whatnot are trying to fit in that mould - to make the decision makers understand your perspective within that cultural bubble.”
Motley also won a landmark case for a mother in Perth, whose Australian children were taken from her to Afghanistan – which is not a signatory to the international convention of child abduction.
“It was great that we did that, not just important that we brought the kids home, but we also created or maintained this blueprint that allows for other lawyers or others parents to use in order to figure out how to legally bring back their kids involved in international child abductions, and others lawyers have used this blueprint, and I think that’s also a victory.”
Motley says she’s grown to love Afghanistan like “a second home”, and while she does have faith in fighting for justice, she worries for the future amid the upcoming elections and US peace negotiations.
“But as much as I’m worried about Afghanistan, I’m also encouraged by so many Afghans that I see that are fighting for the country in different ways, that are becoming educated, that are not leaving the country, that are good people working within the government or good lawyers and judges fighting for justice, I think that’s important.”