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Civilian trial for 9/11 suspects should be off the table

Holding such a trial would not only put classified information at risk but also put a dozen unlucky jurors potentially in harm's way.

May 10, 2010|David B. Rivkin Jr. and Vincent J. Vitkowsky

In a recent hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said that a civilian trial in New York City for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other accused 9/11 plotters was still "not off the table." This is unfortunate, and not only because such a trial would inevitably compromise classified information, impose massive security and logistical costs on New York, and provide the defendants with a superb propaganda platform. Another major problem with a civilian trial has been largely overlooked: the impact on the 12 private citizens unlucky enough to be chosen as jurors.

The trial of Mohammed would be a long and dangerous ordeal for jurors. They would be forced to surrender years of their lives. They would have to be entrusted with classified information of value to Al Qaeda. Their identities almost certainly would become public knowledge, and they could easily be subjected to intimidation. Consider Osama bin Laden's threat on March 25 to execute all captured Americans if the defendants or any other Al Qaeda operatives in U.S. custody are executed. Wouldn't jurors who vote to convict or impose the death penalty have reason to fear that they themselves could become targets for revenge attacks? Meanwhile, a juror who, however improbably, voted to acquit a defendant thought to be responsible for an attack that killed thousands of Americans is likely to be ostracized by many of his fellow countrymen. Either scenario would wreak havoc with civilian jurors' lives.

The problems posed by holding highly publicized terrorists trials, involving defendants who belong to a functioning paramilitary organization, are well illustrated by the British experience in Northern Ireland, where the British government was forced to create specialized terrorism courts, in part because of the inability to obtain convictions from thoroughly intimidated jurors. Under constant threat from the IRA and other factions, most prospective jurors in Northern Ireland either showed a propensity to acquit or were afraid to serve.

Closer to home and more recently, the experience from the civilian trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, also demonstrated the formidable potential for verbal intimidation, propaganda and grandstanding, with significant deleterious impact on the jury. Even though Moussaoui pleaded guilty, a jury had to be empanelled because the government sought the death penalty. The sentencing phase alone took a full year. The prosecution reviewed the horrors of 9/11, and the defense put the government on trial by arguing that the U.S. did little to prevent the attacks.

Moussaoui had to be ejected from the courtroom several times. As the prosecution described 9/11, he pumped his fists and shouted, "God curse America!" He called the collapse of the twin towers "gorgeous," and predicted that "3,000 miscreants" will burn in "hellfire." He testified that the 9/11 survivors and family members were "pathetic" and "disgusting." Most of the jury favored death, but there was a lone holdout, so the jury delivered a sentence of life imprisonment. Upon hearing it, Moussaoui declared, "America, you lost! I won." It was difficult not to conclude that, given Moussaoui's involvement in the worst terrorist attack on American soil, the failure to secure the death penalty was both a setback for the prosecution and a source of grief for many of the victim's' families.

To be sure, similar concerns about intimidation can arise when private citizens serve as jurors in some criminal trials. Organized crime's presence in the U.S. is of much longer standing than Al Qaeda's, and jurors have often faced threats of retribution. That is one reason criminal trials do not always succeed. Witness, for example, the government's capitulation earlier this year in deciding not to proceed against John Gotti Jr. in New York after four mistrials in over five years. Yet, while Gotti is a U.S. citizen, entitled to be tried in a civilian court, Mohammed is not.

All of the jury intimidation problems are resolved entirely by trying Mohammed and the other accused 9/11 plotters before a military commission. The jury in this setting would consist of 12 officers who have voluntarily accepted the risks of their profession, including the prospects of facing death on or off the battlefield. Given the choice between trying the accused mastermind of the 9/11 attacks before a vulnerable jury in civilian court or before a military commission in a secure location such as Guantanamo Bay, we should choose wisely.

David B. Rivkin Jr., an attorney in Washington, served in the Department of Justice in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Vitkowsky is an attorney in New York City. Both are affiliated with the Center for Law and Counterterrorism.

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