Trial for Men Accused of Plotting 9/11 Attacks Is Set for 2021
This article was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
WASHINGTON — Moving toward a final reckoning as the nation approaches the 20th anniversary of the day that led to the longest war in American history, a military judge on Friday set a date for the death penalty trial at Guantánamo Bay of the five men accused of plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The judge, Col. W. Shane Cohen of the Air Force, set Jan. 11, 2021, for the start of the selection of a military jury at Camp Justice, the war court compound at the Navy base in Cuba. It is the first time that a judge in the case actually set a start-of-trial date.
The case against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other men, should it proceed, would be the definitive trial tied to the Sept. 11 attacks. Up until now, only foot soldiers of Al Qaeda have been tried at Guantánamo, and many of their convictions have been overturned.
Mr. Mohammed and the four others face the death penalty in a conspiracy case that describes Mr. Mohammed as the architect of the plot in which 19 men hijacked four commercial passenger planes and slammed two of them into the World Trade Center towers and one into the Pentagon. The fourth, which was believed to be aimed for the Capitol, crashed into a Pennsylvania field instead. The other four men are described as helping the hijackers with training, travel or finances.
The charge sheets lists the names of the 2,976 people who died in the attacks.
“We’ve been wanting a date for a very long time,” said Terry Strada, whose husband, Tom, a corporate bond broker and partner with Cantor Fitzgerald, was killed in the World Trade Center. “This is good news. I certainly hope nothing will happen between now and then to change this. The families have suffered long enough.”
Kathleen Vigiano, whose husband, Joseph Vigiano, a New York police detective, and brother-in-law, John Vigiano Jr., a New York firefighter, were both killed at the World Trade Center, said she was relieved after the years of delay. “People say, this is still going on?’’ she said. “No, it hasn’t started yet.”
The delay is in part a reflection of the difficulty the military has had in carrying out prosecutions in a judicial system that was created in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
It is still unclear if the trial will actually occur. A judge has yet to rule on whether crucial F.B.I. agents’ descriptions of the defendants’ confessions are admissible because the defendants were tortured in C.I.A. prisons. Defense lawyers have said they will go to federal court closer to the trial start date to try to stop the proceedings.
Another outstanding issue is the need for magnetic resonance imaging scans of the five defendants to see if they suffered brain or other physical damage from torture. Defense lawyers might use the M.R.I.s to argue against the men’s executions if they are convicted.
Guantánamo itself is not yet ready for a trial that is expected to last as long as nine months. A judge has ordered prosecutors to give him written updates throughout 2020 on how the government will provide work spaces, lodging and food for trial participants, including the judge and his staff, the jury, lawyers, paralegals, court reporters, translators and reporters at a small Navy base of about 6,000 residents in southeast Cuba. He has also ordered a plan for how to sequester the military jury and how to get participants on and off the island during judicially approved breaks in the trial. For now, reporters and other observers live in tents.
The war crimes trial by military commissions — a hybrid of federal and military courts — will be held in a special courtroom allowing people sitting behind the court in a spectator’s gallery to watch live. But because it is a national security case with the potential to inadvertently make public classified information, the proceedings will be heard on a 40-second delay. Some of the tens of thousands of people who are victims or relatives of the Sept. 11 victims will also be able to watch the proceedings through video broadcast to military bases in New York, Massachusetts and Maryland.
For now, the general public would be able to see the live proceedings only through a video feed shown at Fort Meade, Md.
A Look Inside the Secretive World of Guantánamo Bay
Take a tour of the base and its military prison, which has been housing detainees for more than 17 years.
If the 2021 start date holds, jury selection would start eight months before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The trial date was included in a 10-page scheduling order that set deadlines toward jury selection.
Mr. Mohammed and the four other men were captured in Pakistan in 2002 and 2003. The C.I.A. then held them incommunicado in its secret prison network of black sites, where the United States tortured its prisoners with waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other abuse before delivering them to Guantánamo in 2006. That period has complicated the path to a trial.
The men were initially charged during the George W. Bush administration at Guantánamo. President Barack Obama stopped that case and suspended the military tribunals in order to add more protections for due process. The result was the hybrid war court that exists today.
The case was also delayed by an Obama administration plan to try the five men in federal court in New York City. But protests and then legislation in Congress prevented it.
Besides Mr. Mohammed, two of the other men charged are Walid bin Attash and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, described as deputies in carrying out the attacks. Prosecutors say Mr. bin al-Shibh organized a cell of hijackers in Hamburg, Germany. The final two men charged are Ammar al-Baluchi, Mr. Mohammed’s nephew, and Mustafa al Hawsawi.
All five were arraigned in May 2012. Since then, judges have held more than 30 pretrial hearing sessions to work out questions of law and evidence that would apply at the trial.
In July, a prosecutor, Ed Ryan, urged the judge to set a date saying, “Our client, this nation, deserves a reckoning.”
In a lengthy exchange with the judge, Mr. Ryan argued that “dates energize and mobilize” people to prepare.
On Friday, defense lawyers on the case said that many of the judge’s milestones toward trial were dependent on the prosecution meeting a series of deadlines.
“For a January 2021 trial date to happen, the government would have to drop its obstructionism and produce a lot of important evidence and witnesses,” said James G. Connell III, the lead defense counsel for Mr. Baluchi. Mr. Connell said he had received more than 25,000 pages of case-related documents since July and expected that many more were coming.
Selection of the jury — 12 members and four alternate members — is expected to last months, with American military officers shuttled by air to and from the base in groups, because of the limited housing at Guantánamo.
Besides conspiracy, the men are charged with committing murder in violation of the law of war, attacking civilians and terrorism. Should the men be convicted and sentenced to death, it is up to the secretary of defense to determine the method of execution.
Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com