06.10.139:00 PM ET

From Beauty Queen to War-Zone Lawyer

Kimberley Motley isn't your typical international lawyer. The half-Korean, half-African-American former Miss Wisconsin is fighting Afghanistan’s toughest criminal and human-rights cases.

Kimberley Motley is a rarity in Afghanistan: the only Western litigator in Kabul, the half-Korean, half-African-American 38-year-old Marquette Law grad is a former beauty queen (she was crowned Miss Wisconsin in 2004). She had never even traveled outside the U.S. until 2003, when she signed up for a legal-education program with the U.S. State Department and landed in Afghanistan. Most of her colleagues left after a brief stint in the country, but she stayed on. Now she spends six months out of the year in a well-fortified house in Kabul, representing criminal and human-rights cases in the country. She spoke with me about her toughest assignments, being a stranger in a strange land, and how her roots in inner-city America helped her navigate Kabul. 


Why did you decide to pursue working in Afghanistan? You are away from your family, who now live in Charlotte, North Carolina. And if you had remained in the United States, you could be earning a six-figure salary now. Both of these are big reasons to stay put.

Obviously, having a supportive family eased my decision. When I first started working in Afghanistan, I represented non-Afghan clients. What I found is that most did not have proper legal representation. If they were English-speaking, they had no idea what was going on in court. I felt and still feel a great responsibility for them as a person and as a lawyer.


Is there one case that stands out as a reminder of why you do what you?

My very first case was with an African woman convicted of drug trafficking. She was a drug mule sent to Afghanistan by a European pimp. When I met her in 2009, she did not have an attorney. She had been in prison for two years with her then-3-year-old daughter. She was convicted of 14 years in prison, so her child would have grown up in jail. She had gone through almost all of her legal options. I felt very helpless, and I do believe her case helped define and shape who I am. She was not afforded her due process under Afghan law. She and her child were tucked away in an Afghan prison, forgotten. I eventually got a presidential decree (in essence, the woman¹s release). And last year, she was able to return to Africa.


Is there a similar case that stands out for you among your Afghan-born clients?

I took on the case of a woman whose daughter was murdered in Afghanistan. The daughter¹s husband and in-laws killed her. She was being beaten, and the police had ignored her pleas for help. Afghan authorities ruled it a suicide, which I do not agree [with]. I launched a civil suit against the Afghan government and those specific people within the government who failed to act and protect her when she was alive. The attorney general’s office in Kabul is currently investigating this case.

Another case involved an Afghan Sikh who was imprisoned for proselytizing. Although he was not formally charged, he spent 20 months in prison, in which he was forced to cut his hair, eat meat, and convert to Islam. I got him out, and he is now in the United Kingdom.


I've heard you say that your background prepared you for this work. Can you explain?

I grew up in a hard neighborhood [in Milwaukee]. My parents are very nurturing, but outside the home, my environment was hard, harsh, even though we were very close as a family. There was a lot of crime, a lot of poverty, a lot of distrust of each other. A lot of people where I grew up felt invisible to the world. I have two brothers and a sister, and I can think of no other family, for instance, who lived in a two-parent household.

Like Afghanistan, where I grew up was somewhat family-oriented, but to the degree that everyone was looking out for himself or herself. People didn't have cars. People are hustling to make money to survive. I myself had to work at a young age.


What kind of work did you do?

My mother grew up in rural North Korea. So every summer as a small child, she would bring my siblings and me to a farm. We had to plant turnips and pick green beans and strawberries. My mother would then freeze the fruits and vegetables we picked to eat all winter.

I had a newspaper route with my brother starting at a young age. I worked at an ice cream shop when I was 13. My father would enter me into educational contests, which I often won—writing essays, that sort of thing. I worked at a juvenile-detention center, grocery stores, youth centers. I was always interested in law, however. My parents wouldn't allow us to watch television. But in high school, one of my teachers had us watch Law & Order. In my household, if a teacher told us we had to do something, my parents would make sure we did. I loved it so much that for three years, I kept telling my parents, my teacher needs me to watch Law & Order.


Your father was also involved in a legal case that inspired you to go into law.

My father was laid off after injuring himself in a car accident. He wanted disability and had to spend years and go through so many lawyers to end up being not successful. Also seeing so many people in my neighborhood go in and out of jail. Frankly, I wanted to be a doctor and a DJ. But law picked me.


What motivates you to do the work you do now?

Definitely my kids and husband motivate me. You always want your children to have it better than you have. I want to be a great example to them that there is right in this world. There are so many wrong things in the legal system in the world, if I can make things right, it makes me feel really good.

I also have a strong sense of wanting to help people who are invisible become visible. The law is a powerful tool that we are all supposed to benefit and be protected by. But I see it being used as a sword against people who are invisible, like Afghan women.


You are a former beauty queen. How do you keep sane in Afghanistan?

I teach spinning classes at the military base. I love doing that. I respect the military. My father was in the military—it's where he met my mother. I also go out for dinner by myself, bring my computer, and watch a movie. I Skype a lot, too!