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New Yorkers voice concerns about 9/11 trial

The move to put the self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind on trial just blocks from ground zero raises a host of questions, chief among them: Can a fair-minded jury be found?
Image: Khalid Sheik Mohammed
This July photo from the Arabic-language Web site shows a man identified as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, in detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The move to put the self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind on trial just blocks from ground zero raises a host of legal, political and security questions, chief among them: Can a fair-minded jury be found in a city still nursing deep wounds from the attack on the World Trade Center

Some also worry that the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will make New York an even bigger terrorist target, and that he will use the proceedings to incite more violence against Americans.

The loudest protests Friday came from relatives of the victims, many of whom oppose any civilian trial for terror suspects — especially at the federal courthouse 1,000 yards from the spot where nearly 3,000 people died.

"If we have to bring them to the United States, New York City is not the place to have it, let alone in a courthouse that is in the shadows of the twin towers," said Lee Ielpi, whose firefighter son died in the 9/11 attacks. The city's wounds, he said, are simply still too raw.

"Ripping that scab open will create a tremendous hardship," he said.

Some city leaders seemed to relish the chance to hold the evildoers accountable at the scene of the crime.

"It is fitting that 9/11 suspects face justice near the World Trade Center site where so many New Yorkers were murdered," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly also said that holding the trial in the city most devastated by the 2001 attack is appropriate, and he pronounced the Police Department prepared to meet any security challenge.

Previous terrorism cases tried
It may be years before Mohammed is brought to trial, and there is no guarantee the proceedings will actually be held in the city.

A defense attorney is almost certain to ask the judge to move the proceedings to someplace less likely to produce a jury tainted by extreme hatred of the defendant, said James Benjamin, a New York City lawyer who has studied terrorism prosecutions.

Still, he added, the city has handled big terrorism cases before.

Trials arising from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and another plot to attack city landmarks were held in federal court in New York.

Manhattan has jails ready to receive Mohammed. Terrorism defendants have been taken to the Metropolitan Correctional Center — a 10-story building next to the courthouse — and placed in solitary confinement in 10 South, a cellblock for high-risk prisoners.

This combination of undated photos shows, from left: Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, Waleed bin Attash, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi and Ramzi Binalshibh. Self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other Guantanamo Bay detainees will be sent to New York to face trial in a civilian federal court, an Obama administration official said Friday, Nov. 13, 2009. (AP Photos)AP

For the 2001 trial in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, spectators had to pass through two sets of metal detectors, the courtroom and surrounding hallways were monitored around the clock, and videotape recorded any movements.

The defendants were strip-searched before being led through a passageway connecting the jail to the courthouse. Their feet were shackled throughout the proceedings, the chains shielded from the jury by a curtain attached to the defense table.

"The courts have handled many sensational cases fairly and effectively over the years," Benjamin said.

Civil-rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, said Muhammad is likely to be treated more fairly in New York, despite the hatred for him here, than he would before a military tribunal.

'It will be a travesty!'
In announcing that Mohammed and four other Guantanamo Bay detainees will be brought to trial in New York, Attorney General Eric Holder expressed confidence that a "searching, complete" selection process would produce a fair-minded jury.

"We can come up with a process that ensures the defendants can get a fair trial in New York," he said.

Still, others with close personal ties to the case predicted chaos.

"It will be a travesty!" said Debra Burlingame, sister of Charles Burlingame, one of the pilots of the airliners hijacked on Sept. 11.

She said Mohammed's court appearances will be a "three-ring circus," with the defendant using every opportunity to spout anti-American views as he did in front of 9/11 family members who traveled to Guantanamo to face him in court.

"He's going to be exulting in the suffering of the families," she said. "He will ridicule the judge. He will ridicule his lawyers. He will rally his jihadi brothers all over the world to kill more Americans."

She said she was sickened by "the prospect of these barbarians being turned into victims by their attorneys."

New York Rep. Peter King, a Republican who favors trials before a military tribunal, said that providing security for the Mohammed case would further stretch the Police Department's resources. "They already have 1,000 cops working on counterterrorism," he said.

King, who previously complained to the attorney general that transferring Guantanamo detainees to New York for a trial "will make New York City that much more of a target," said he hadn't changed his mind about the risk.

As for Mohammed, the congressman warned: "I think this is the moment he's been waiting for."