NEW YORK (Reuters) - Rights groups and legal scholars on Friday praised the Obama administration’s decision to bring September 11 suspects to trial in civilian court in New York, but they questioned whether defendants could get a fair trial so close to Ground Zero.
Rights groups said the decision to move the accused mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four others to face criminal charges at U.S. District Court in Manhattan could help repair America’s tarnished image.
“We did not want a flawed process to be used against some of the most notorious criminal defendants in modern history,” said Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, praising the move.
The Friday announcement by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was a reversal of Bush administration policy, under which those held at Guantanamo were to be tried by military tribunals.
But some law experts and others said the defendants might face obstacles to a fair trial, not least seating an impartial jury. “He certainly won’t get the jury that people think of when they think about the average criminal jury,” Colombia Law School professor Daniel Richman said of Mohammed.
But he added: “I’ll bet that if one were to move the trial to the least affected place (by the attacks) in the United States, one would find a jury pool there that the defendants would not much like either.”
Some ordinary New Yorkers also questioned how you could find an impartial jury in the city.
“Finding a jury that’s comfortable in dealing with it — that’s going to be the problem,” said Frank Zuccarello, a 68-year-old janitorial services manager from Manhattan.
Holder said he was unsure if statements gained through interrogations that included waterboarding will be used, but that he would seek the death penalty and would use classified evidence that may result in the courtroom being cleared.
“How relevant were those statements? Will those statements be used?” he said. Holder has called waterboarding torture.
“But I am quite confident on the basis of the evidence that we will be able to present, some of which has not been publicly discussed before, that we will be successful in our attempts to convict those men,” Holder added.
In the Manhattan federal courthouse, which offers views of the site of the former World Trade Center, past jurors of terrorism trials have pledged to be impartial.
But since the September 11 attacks, nearly every defendant charged with terrorism at the Manhattan court, one of America’s busiest, has either pleaded guilty or been convicted.
Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as the “Blind Sheik”, was one of 10 people convicted in 1995 for conspiring to blow up the United Nations building and other New York City landmarks, following the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Other terrorism suspects convicted in the courthouse have included Uzair Paracha, a then 25-year-old Pakistani found guilty in 2005 of supporting al Qaeda after he helped an al Qaeda operative obtain a travel document, and Rafiq Sabir, a Florida doctor who prosecutors said swore allegiance to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
“Naturally not every trial turns out to be a fair trial,” said Norman Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
“But ... in a federal district court, all of the tools and implements provided by the Constitution will be there to give the best chance to get a fair trial,” he said.
Others said it would be difficult to introduce evidence from Guantanamo as defense lawyers are expected to argue that the men were tortured. Mohammed has been waterboarded 183 times.
Security concerns are also an issue. In 2000, an accused former top aide to bin Laden, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, stabbed a Manhattan jail guard through the eye with a sharpened comb while awaiting trial for conspiring to kill Americans.
New York officials including Mayor Michael Bloomberg said they were confident police would keep the trial safe.
Lorie Van Auken, whose husband Kenneth was 47 when he was killed in the World Trade Center attacks, said the trials would help to bring closure.
“I’m glad to hear they are going to be brought to New York to the scene of the crime and giving the families that were affected the chance to actually watch the trial,” Van Auken told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Mark Egan and Mohammad Zargham