WEST POINT, N.Y. — In a little more than a week, Lt. Col. Kris Poppe is scheduled to begin one of the biggest trials of his life when he defends an Army psychiatrist charged in the 2009 deadly shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, that left 13 dead and numerous others injured.
It’s just one of the high-profile cases that have landed in the lap of the former Wapakoneta attorney as a member of the Judge Advocate General Corps for the Army representing criminal defendants in court martial proceedings.
Members of Congress and others have called the case an act of terrorism by Maj. Nidal Hasan, who is a Muslim. Hasan faces the death penalty on 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder in the deadliest mass shooting on a U.S. military base.
Poppe was at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Thursday, a day before his son, Lucas Poppe, graduated from the academy. He took a few minutes to give a rare interview to The Lima News by telephone.
Although he cannot discuss the Hasan case because it’s pending, he talked about representing high-profile defendants, including having some worries when he had to move his family to Fort Hood to take the case. He said he was concerned about their safety because there was so much emotion surrounding the case.
Those worries, thankfully, didn’t turn into anything, he said. Soldiers and others have given him nothing but respect and understand he has a job.
“They certainly respect the fact that I have a mission and I’ve been given a mission. Everybody in the military has a mission and this is mine,” he said.
While Poppe has undertaken a lot of defense work in recent years, including successfully defending the highest-ranking Army officer charged in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal several years ago and several high-profile murder cases involving members of the Army, he’s not always on the defense side.
Poppe also has served as a prosecutor in the Army but his experience and expertise lends him to defense work, especially when the case is big.
It’s fair to say he’s the Army’s go-to guy when the Army needs an experienced defense attorney.
Long before he was a legal eagle for the military, Poppe was a local boy from Wapakoneta, the son of an attorney. He later became a Marine, graduated from law school and then joined his father’s practice.
He joined the Army to help pay for college and stayed in, sometimes being pulled into active duty to handle cases. He’s been back and forth to Wapakoneta along his journey and now is full-time Army at Fort Hood in Texas.
Poppe has no immediate plans to retire from the Army but said that day will eventually come and he will return to Wapakoneta to finish out his career.
“You never know what is happening year to year but sooner or later I will retire from the service and certainly Ohio is home,” he said.
Poppe misses his father and the rest of his family but said a lot of his family is scattered across the country.
Poppe stays in contact with his father, John Poppe, who still practices. He frequently asks his father for advice because his father has pretty much seen it all in more than 40 years in the courtroom, which included a stint as the Auglaize County prosecutor.
“I still call dad all the time if I have questions. He never practiced in a military court but there are so many things that translate. He’s the guy I turn to for advice,” Poppe said.
Poppe has grown up before his father’s eyes and made him proud there has been a changing of the guard, somewhat. As he gains experience, his father or other attorneys sometimes call him for a second opinion or advice especially when it has to do with a case involving a soldier.
His ties to Wapakoneta are well-known among his staff where he is chief of capital litigation for the Army’s trial defense service. He often talks about local cases as examples when discussing trial strategy, he said.
Poppe never dreamed he would make a career out of the military when he entered as a Marine out of high school. But along the way good things happened and the 50-year-old Poppe has found himself in the military for 32 years with 21 years on active duty.
“I kept running into interesting assignments and running into good people,” he said.
When he started as an attorney in the Army, Poppe never sought out to get the biggest cases and never thought of it like that. But his experience quickly pushed him up the list, especially because he had handled complex cases in his civilian law practice.
“I had trial experience before I ever got to the military and that is kind of unusual,” he said. “When you have that experience and get a tough and complex case that requires more experience they have people that they call. I’m one of those people.”
Poppe said he never sits down and thinks about how big of a role he plays or that his name is part of history. He sees it as a job that he loves to do and the focus becomes given the client the best defense possible.
“Once you have been through it once with a case that is high profile or has notoriety, it’s cases,” he said. “I had the good fortune to have a good trainer as my father. He taught me the importance of staying grounded and focusing on the case and your client.”