With his quirky, self-deprecating sense of humor, love of sport and easygoing nature Michael Mori – or Dan to his friends and family – will fit very nicely into his new home, Melbourne.
We’re in the Lonsdale Street offices of Shine Lawyers, where he began work in July. Mori is getting used to Melbourne and, as we speak, takes calls about viewing houses he might rent. We’re talking about his three young sons and the fact that he’s 46. “Started late in life,” he says, smiling.
“Forty-six. Do I look that old? Mentally I’m about 14.”
Mori has squeezed a lot into those 46 years. This month he officially finishes a 28-year career with the US Marine Corps, including roles as a prosecutor and defence counsel, a military judge and, famously, for 3½ years the legal representative for one-time Australian Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks.
Representing Hicks was a role that gave Mori an international profile, infuriated some in the military for Mori’s criticisms of the process, landed him on Enough Rope with Andrew Denton and now finds him working as a civilian lawyer in the social justice department of the plaintiff law firm Shine (you might have seen Shine’s TV ads featuring Erin Brockovich, a strategic adviser for the firm).
Mori first visited Australia in 1988 on a rugby tour when he was at uni in the US, playing in Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns. Years later he’d come to Melbourne when he was representing Hicks. “I got a lot of help from Tim McCormack (a law professor) at Melbourne University,” he says. “They had sent a student over to assist, Sarah Finnin.”
He found a strong connection with Victorian lawyers. “The legal community in Victoria was the first to sort of want to get more information. The bar and the Law Council. A lot of the change in perception and that desire to hear more began in the legal community here in Victoria.
“I met a lot of lawyers and it really struck me that there was a sense of camaraderie that I really liked. So I thought if some day I could get my licence and be part of it, I’d be really happy.
“One of my friends put me in touch with one of the managing partners for Shine, Simon Morrison. I’d met him during the Hicks case when I was over here when he was president of the Australian Lawyers Alliance. Shine was starting a social justice department. (He asked) did I want to be involved with that? It all happened really quickly.”
Dan Mori grew up outside Boston, Massachussettss in New England. “We walked to school. There were forests and stuff to explore.”
At uni in Ohio he hadn’t starred. “I’d played football, spent a lot of time with sports and socialising and probably not enough at the books, so I probably had not done well. I don’t think I was ready for it. So I came home one night on the Christmas break and enlisted in the Marine Corps and went off to boot camp, 21st December.” It was 1983, and Mori was 18.
Why was he attracted to that world of discipline? “I just wanted drastic change in my life,” he says. “I went into all the different recruiters. The Marines were more than happy to get me signed up within a week.”
The Marine Corps has a reputation as a hard life. Did it make him tough? “I don’t know. It certainly gives you some level of confidence, putting you through different physical challenges.” Did he find meeting those challenges satisfying? “I had a great time, I really enjoyed it, it brought me to rugby union. It was definitely something I needed. I needed to grow up, and it gave me those four years to mature. Work experience gave me exposure to creative leaders and (the values) of the Marine Corps.”
After four years in the Marine Corps, he took reserve status and went back to uni and did the officer’s program. “And then I kind of accidentally became a lawyer.”
Mori was posted to South Carolina, Japan and then Hawaii, where he was head prosecutor for the Marine base at Pearl Harbor. One day he received a fateful email. “Some email came around to all the head lawyers saying they were looking for someone to be on the defence office for the commissions,” he says.
His name was submitted as a defence counsel. His first task in January 2004 was to represent a young Australian detainee at Guantanamo Bay, who faced charges of conspiracy to commit war crimes and a range of others.
What was Mori’s first impression of David Hicks? “He struck me as just an Aussie.” A lost kid maybe? Long pause. Mori is clearly uncomfortable revealing much at all about his one-time famous client. “Let’s go onto another question.”
The case quickly became political and placed Mori in the international spotlight. “If you go back to that time, January ’04, not many people had spoken against what was going on with the commissions,” he says. “I didn’t make this case a media case or a political case, it already was that. You’ve got the president of the United States and the prime minister of Australia and ministers commenting about a case in the media.
“People weren’t happy that someone in uniform was speaking against what was being done.”
“I had to make a decision about whether or not to respond publicly about the system. And I think it was hypocricies in the system that really bothered me, whether it was David or any other Australian, the fact that there was a system that was not acceptable for Americans to be tried in, it wasn’t acceptable for British to be tried in, but somehow this second-rate system was OK for an Australian. That bothered me.”
By voicing his disapproval of the processes by which detainees were dealt with legally at Guantanamo Bay, Mori had a lot of pressure placed on him. “It was just the job,” he says.
Mori articulated what many around the world, including Hicks’ supporters in Australia, were thinking. “And it was accurate,” he says. “That was the thing.”
In 2007, Mori was threatened with court martial by then chief prosecutor at Guantanamo for speaking out on Hicks. Did Mori feel pressure himself to shut down his views? Did anyone tell you to pull his head in? Long pause. “People weren’t happy that someone in uniform was speaking against what was being done.”
How did it affect him personally? “The whole process was a stressful (time) … Some would say ‘Hey, one case, 3½ years, great, how easy!’ But it was a system that had never been used before, that had been resurrected from World War II. The rules were always changing.
“It was created and controlled by the people who had the power. It wasn’t a real system. They weren’t using the real court martial system, they weren’t using the federal court. Every time you tried to prepare the case they would just change the system or change the rules. So it was very frustrating on that (level). It was like everybody else was in on this joke except for me, that everybody else was in on creating this sort of rigged system and we were just supposed to play our part and be the defence counsel, argue in court and go down gracefully.”
But something in Mori made him choose not to cop that. “It was the hypocrisy. Seeing people being treated unfairly. I’d said through the whole process ‘Give us a court martial, give us a real court system’ but they couldn’t do that because they had to guarantee convictions.
“There were so many people involved with the creation of everything and the inertia was such that there was one outcome needed, and that was to convict people and then everything that had been done in the past would be justified.”
Then US president George Bush famously described then Australian prime minster John Howard as the “man of steel”. The pair shared a good, strong relationship. How much did that help Hicks? “I don’t know,” Mori says. “They never rang me and asked me my opinion.” (Laughs.)
When Hicks finally departed Guantanamo Bay, how did Mori feel? “Relief.” Was it an emotional farewell? “It was surreal. The whole experience was surreal. I wouldn’t believe he’d be gone until he was actually there, do you know what I mean? I was expecting something to put a wrench in it.”
Did he say thanks for all your help? “We had a lot of time together. I don’t want to put words … David has chosen to keep his life private and I respect that.”
In July, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions withdrew its action to recover the proceeds of Hicks’ memoir Guantanamo: My Journey.
“Well he should be able to make the money,” Mori says. “It’s his book ... He went through it. The decision not to go forward (in pursuing Hicks over the royalties) shows that it wasn’t a valid conviction.”
I asked Mori if he stayed in touch with Hicks. “I stay in touch with him since I met him and I hope to stay in touch with him for the rest of his life or mine, whichever ends first.”
Mori has always nurtured a dream of moving to Australia and would like to settle here. “I don’t think I’ll ever lose my connection with the US.”
Melbourne was an easy choice, he says. “Starting in Australia you go into one of the big cities, either Sydney or Melbourne, and Melbourne was definitely an easier fit, especially with kids, with transportation, good places to eat everywhere.”
He’s enjoying his new life here. “In a way I see it as an overseas tour, like the military, but obviously I’m hoping that this blossoms and I get my residency.”
He’s happy to be at Shine. “That’s the great thing about social justice. It can be anything from consumer protection, landlord and tenant, to – obviously I have a strong affiliation with the military – so making sure service members are being treated appropriately.
“That’s what attracted me to Shine – their values are standing up for the little guy. I think the creation of a social justice department shows they’re putting their money where their mouth is.”
His three young boys are settling in well at school, although the language nuances are presenting some challenges. “They come home and say ‘Daddy, everyone keeps saying to me ‘G’day mate’ and ‘Sorry mate’.”
He tries to stay fit and loves sport but knows his days playing rugby are over. “Rugby union is big in the military. It’s a team sport, needs physical conditioning, cheap to outfit. Almost every base would have a rugby team.
“It was cool playing rugby into my 30s but now my joints are telling me it wasn’t so cool.”
The only snag in moving to Melbourne is that his mother isn’t thrilled her son has moved so far away (his father died in 2000). “Not very happy,” he says of his mother’s reaction. “Too far for grandma to come and visit. But you know it’s just a longer flight.”