KABUL, Afghanistan — The former Miss Wisconsin didn't seem to notice the stares as the car bounced down the narrow dirt road that leads to Kabul's infamous Pol-e-charki prison.

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KABUL, Afghanistan — The former Miss Wisconsin didn’t seem to notice the stares as the car bounced down the narrow dirt road that leads to Kabul’s infamous Pol-e-charki prison.

When the vehicle came to a stop at the first guard post, Kimberley Motley, an American defense lawyer who represents foreigners ensnarled in Afghanistan’s legal system, lowered her window and flashed a smile.

The onetime Milwaukee public defender has carved out an uncharted niche in an often-overlooked battleground in the Afghan war. The country’s criminal-justice system is among the weakest links in a system of deficient institutions. It is beset by widespread corruption, shoddy police work, a presumption of guilt and a subservience to the politically powerful.

Navigating it effectively as a defense lawyer takes connections, acumen and, more often than not, clients with deep pockets and few scruples.

Doing so as an American woman who refuses to pay bribes or cover her head takes far more: charm, perseverance and patience. Then there’s Motley’s secret courtroom weapon: an iPad outfitted with a Koran application that allows her to quickly pull up verses from Islam’s holy book.

Motley, 35, was in Pol-e-charki to see two South African clients. The most pressing case was Philip Young’s. The 47-year-old contractor was recently sentenced to 16 years for murder and hopes Motley can get the conviction overturned, or the term reduced, by appealing to the Afghan Supreme Court.

It took about 30 minutes of shoving, cajoling and sweet-talking before the gates of Pol-e-charki opened for Motley. Most of the guards greeted her warmly.

“You made it!” Young exclaimed when he saw her.

The two sat on a wobbly mattress in a guardroom, the only place they could find to talk privately in a block that holds petty criminals and insurgents who discuss their hatred of foreigners.

Young was detained a little over a year ago after fatally shooting an Afghan guard during a confrontation at work. The South African said he opened fire in self-defense after the recently fired guard shot at him.

“From the moment the police arrived, it turned into a dog and pony show,” Young said. “There was no presumption of innocence. They all wanted to hear that a foreigner had killed a local guy.”

Prosecutors argued that the attack was unprovoked. Several Afghan officials tried to shake him down for cash, Young said. Motley did not represent him during the trial or initial appeal.

“To Young’s astonishment, when he appealed an initial conviction, the higher court raised his sentence from five to 16 years.

Motley agreed to handle the final appeal.

Unlike most Western women who work in Kabul, Motley chooses not to cover her head with a veil. It was a conscious decision, she said, because female lawyers seem to get little respect in Kabul’s courts.

“When I first came to Afghanistan, I would wear a head scarf in meetings out of respect and I felt like I was sometimes ignored,” Motley said. “When I took it off they started to hear me.”

Abdul Farooqi, an appellate judge who oversaw a case Motley handled, said she earned respect among jurists but still faces a steep learning curve. “She’s not familiar with Afghan law 100 percent, and that can cause some problems,” he said.

Motley, the daughter of an African-American airman and a North Korean immigrant, grew up in a low-income complex in northern Milwaukee.

She entered the Miss Wisconsin pageant on a bet and was crowned in 2004. She worked as a public defender from 2003 to 2008, juggling a busy caseload while raising three children, who are now 13, 9 and 4.

Motley initially traveled to Kabul in 2008 to work on the State Department’s rule-of-law training team.

When her contract expired, Motley decided to stay and start a private practice. Her husband, Claudiare Motley, 39, was disappointed but supportive.

He and the children remained in the United States and now live in Charlotte, N.C., where Kimberley Motley visits them. She helps with homework via Skype.

She said she has long tended to get emotionally invested in cases, but more so with clients in Afghanistan.

Young’s case is the first she will argue before the Afghan Supreme Court. She showed up there on a recent morning to corner justices for answers.

One justice, Atiqullah Raufi, acknowledged that Afghan law permits lawyers to make oral arguments before the Supreme Court in principle, but said the system is much too backlogged for that in practice.

“The problem,” he said, “are defense lawyers who represent people they know are guilty. If he’s guilty, he should be punished. Don’t try to deceive the court system.”

The words would probably have set off the average American defense lawyer. But Motley played it cool and responded with sarcasm. “Will you please tell the judge I only represent innocent people?” she asked an interpreter.

During a second visit to Pol-e-charki prison, Motley told Young the chances of prevailing before the Supreme Court weren’t looking good. “We have to stay positive,” she said.

“I hope to be exonerated,” Young said. “But I don’t expect it.”