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Defending 'the most hated man in the world'

Prescott Prince's client is 9/11 figure Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

May 25, 2008|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — They make an unlikely pair, the world's most notorious captured terrorist and the Navy captain assigned to defend him against war-crimes charges that could lead to his execution. But together, the two men are quietly embarking on a legal odyssey that could last years, and may ultimately help define the constitutional parameters of the United States' role in the global war on terrorism.

On three occasions over the last few weeks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described orchestrator of the Sept. 11 attacks, has sat with his legs shackled to a chair in a cramped, windowless briefing room at the Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Mohammed has probably spent most of the last five years in similar leg irons, fielding questions from American officials.

But now, for the first time, the man who has been sitting across from him is a potential ally, a Navy Reserve judge advocate general named Prescott L. Prince.

Prince was recently tapped to be Mohammed's lead defense lawyer for the military commission proceedings in which he is charged with murder in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in the 2001 attacks.

In 10 hours of interviews, the two men have sized each other up, talking about themselves, the American justice system and the imminent arraignment of Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators, scheduled for June 5.

"I call him Mr. Mohammed," said Prince. "He calls me Mr. Prescott."

Prince is prohibited from disclosing details of what Mohammed told him in their conversations, but his description of their encounters offers a rare glimpse of a man whose persona has taken on monstrous proportions since his boastful media interview in 2002 about how he masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks. He was captured the following year in Pakistan, and the harsh interrogations he was subjected to while hidden away for three years in the CIA's secret detention program -- which many think constituted torture -- have sparked a furor over whether the Bush administration violated U.S. and international law.

Defense strategy

Prince's meetings with Mohammed also offer a glimpse into the defense strategy in the most high-profile American terrorism case in the post-Sept. 11 world, a trial sure to be followed by millions when it gets underway, probably many months from now.

Prince, a Southern lawyer who only a year ago was running a small civilian defense practice, expects the case to go on for years and culminate in a landmark Supreme Court decision. To him, it's not only the welfare of his infamous client that matters, but also protecting the integrity of the Constitution, which he says the Bush administration has trampled by coercing information out of Mohammed and subjecting him to a system of military justice that is stacked against him.

"I think it's the constitutional case of our time," Prince, 53, said in a recent interview in his office, U.S. and Navy flags front and center on his desk. "Because in the 221st year of America, the question is whether the Constitution applies to the government."

Mohammed, a U.S.-educated engineer who is believed to be 43 or 44, was once the operations chief and third in command of Al Qaeda. In a preliminary court proceeding at Guantanamo last year, he claimed credit for dozens of terrorist plots and attacks -- bragging, for instance, about how he orchestrated Sept. 11 "from A to Z" and how he personally beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl because he was a Jew.

Mohammed may be the killer he claims to be; during their meetings, Prince said, he was a model client and the picture of decorum and politeness. "He does not come across as angry or bitter or hateful," said Prince. "He is unquestionably involved and engaged in his defense."

So far, Mohammed has not formally committed to allowing Prince and a still-forming legal team to represent him. And Mohammed has not indicated how he wants to plead at his arraignment. But it is Prince's impression that he is considering supporting what is likely to be a protracted legal battle waged by a small team of military and civilian lawyers against the might of the U.S. government.

"I have no idea whether he did even half of those things he is accused of doing," Prince said. "But if he did commit those offenses, there are still issues of whether this court has jurisdiction, whether he is an enemy combatant who should be tried in a tribunal of this nature."

Expecting an appeal

Prince said he was framing the defense case with an eye toward appealing the decision made to try Mohammed in a military commission -- and toward appealing whatever verdict comes from it. He and other lawyers for the defendants are also moving to have the case thrown out or transferred to a military court-martial or even federal court, where Mohammed was indicted in absentia in 1996 on suspicion of plotting to bomb U.S. airliners over the Pacific.

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