Justice officials stand by terror trials in civilian courts
WASHINGTON — Senior Department of Justice officials said Thursday that they remain committed to trying more terrorism suspects in U.S. civilian courts, despite a jury in New York that convicted a Tanzanian man of conspiracy, but not murder, in the African embassy bombings.
“We’re going to continue to review the cases on their merits and decide which forum is the most appropriate,” said chief Justice spokesman Matthew Miller, adding that Justice and Defense Department officials are using a detailed protocol to determine who is tried where.
He said decisions are under review for nearly four dozen terror suspects on whether to try them in the U.S. courts or before military commissions at the Naval Base prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He declined to say who might be next to be tried in a civilian courtroom, but added, “Every day we’re continuing to work on it.”
Miller rejected criticism from Republican lawmakers who saw the Wednesday’s verdict for Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani — guilty on one count of conspiracy but cleared of 284 counts of murder and attempted murder — as proof that all terror suspects should be tried only in military commissions.
In the Ghailani case, Miller said, “The criminal justice system produced a verdict that’s going to lead to his serving from 20 years to life, and we are going to ask for life.”
Under the protocol, coming cases are being studied by Justice and Defense department attorneys, and defendants will be ordered to stand trial in civilian courts or military commissions based on a series of “strength of issue” factors. That includes where the crimes occurred, where the suspect was captured, and how the “case was investigated and evidence gathered.”
Miller said that officials have referred 45 suspects for prosecution in both venues but have made public only 12 of them. The 12 that have been announced include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others tied to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; prosecutors wanted to try them in New York but are reconsidering after a huge outcry there.
That outcry was heard again yesterday in reaction by conservatives to the Ghailani verdict.
“Wrong again on terror trials,” declared Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. The verdict, he said, “is all the proof we need that the administration’s approach to prosecuting terrorists has been deeply misguided and indeed potentially harmful as a matter of national security.”
“This trial came dangerously close to failure,” said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, “despite Attorney General (Eric) Holder’s assurance that ‘failure is not an option.’ I hope that the administration heard this wake-up call and will return to the policy of trying these kinds of terrorists in military commissions.”
Democrats came to the defense of the Obama administration for taking terror cases to civilian courts.
“This trial shows our legal system works,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who heads the House subcommittee on the Constitution. He added that the verdict calls for continued use of “our criminal justice system to try and convict terrorists.”