James Pirtle remembers that moment in a Kampala restaurant last year when a beautiful woman with blue hair eyed him carefully and said, "Everyone in Uganda will hate you for this." He could appreciate her concern. His new client was Thomas Kwoyelo, a rebel commander accused of carrying out the murderous orders of African warlord Joseph Kony, the notorious star of this year's record-setting YouTube vid, Kony 2012.
A 2005 Seattle University law grad and co-founder of the Sentinel Law Group in Seattle, Pirtle knew he'd made the right decision when, in a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase he'd clung to while riding on the back of speeding motorcycle, he finally shook hands with Kwoyelo at old, overcrowded Luzria Prison outside Kampala.
As we report in today's Seattle Weekly cover story:
Kwoyelo was 39, three years older than Pirtle. Yet to Pirtle, Kwoyelo looked like the child he'd been when he was abducted on his way to school in the northern Ugandan town of Pabo in 1985. Barely 5 feet 2 inches tall, Kwoyelo, though his eyes seemed dead, appeared shy, reluctant to let go of Pirtle's hand.
Since his kidnapping by Kony's men at age 13, Kwoyelo had grown into a murderer, but not necessarily a man, Pirtle thought. The two of them stood there nodding--Kwoyelo spoke Acholi, a regional language in a nation that favors Swahili and English. An interpreter was handy, but for the moment Pirtle and the accused war criminal just stared at each other in silence, their four hands clasped under the African sun.
"He is himself a victim," Pirtle would later recall thinking at the time. "And now they want to punish him for it."
As unpopular as Kwoyelo is to some, Pirtle and his Ugandan co-counsels managed at one point to gain the accused war criminal's judicial freedom, they thought. But that and a similar court ruling, urging amnesty for Kwoyelo, is on appeal, and the accused remains at Luzria, facing life in prison or possibly the death penalty.
Pirtle, who says he's spent $50,000 of his own money on the case, is now preparing to return and fight the case to its bitter, or bittersweet, end.
"Ideally," he says, thinking back to the day a quarter-century ago when teenaged Thomas was abducted into Kony's army of atrocities. "someday I will return to take Kwoyelo home to his mother."