WASHINGTON — Moving toward a final reckoning as the nation approaches the 20th anniversary of the day that led to the longest war in U.S. history, a military judge 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 Sheikh 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-Qaida have been tried at Guantánamo, and many of their convictions have been overturned.
Mohammed and the four others face the death penalty in a conspiracy case that describes 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 FBI agents’ descriptions of the defendants’ confessions are admissible because the defendants were tortured in CIA 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 MRI scans of the five defendants to see if they suffered brain or other physical damage from torture. Defense lawyers might use the MRIs to argue against the men’s executions if they are convicted.
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. For now, the general public would be able to see the live proceedings only through a video feed shown at Fort Meade, Maryland.
—(The New York Times)