Saturday, October 22, 2011

Feds Win, With an Asterisk

The Justice Department didn’t lose a minute October 12 before taking full credit for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s guilty plea to all counts in his terror trial.  According to the statement released by the DOJ, Attorney General Eric Holder said:

“Contrary to what some have claimed, today’s plea removes any doubt that our courts are one of the most effective tools we have to fight terrorism and keep the American people safe. Our priority in this case was to ensure that we arrested a man who tried to do us harm, that we collected actionable intelligence from him and that we prosecuted him in a way that was consistent with the rule of law. We will continue to be aggressive in our fight against terrorism and those who target us, and we will let results, not rhetoric, guide our actions.”

I’ll tell you at the outset I never doubted the government would have won a guilty verdict had the U-bomber’s trial continued. Not only did the FBI have his confession in a bag, but there were plenty of eyewitnesses and  drawers full of physical evidence to prove exactly what U-bomber tried to do.

That said, I’m at a complete loss how the AG gets off claiming Abdulmutallab’s guilty plea proves the AG’s theory that civilian trial are more effective than military tribunals for trying enemy combatants.

In case you missed the seven-minute news cycle on this, Abdulmutallab was in the second day of his trial when he unexpectedly offered to plead guilty to all counts – on his own initiative and against the advice of his attorney.

Defendants plead guilty frequently after their trials begin. Usually it happens once the defendant gets a load of how much evidence against him the prosecutor is showing to the jury.  Defendants  figure out their facing the maximum verdict and the maximum penalty if they don’t spare everyone the ordeal of the trial and plead to something lesser.

This isn’t what happened in the Abdulmutallab trial. His decision to plead was not in response to the evidence -- the trial had barely begun. It wasn’t in response to anything the government did during trial. More notable, he didn’t ask for anything in exchange for his plea. He wanted to plead to all counts, straight up. It was Abdulmutallab’s decision all the way. Why he did it this way doesn’t really matter, even if we knew.

But bear in mind that if he’d wanted to, Abdulmutallab could have entered the same plea at his arraignment last year. And, he could have also pleaded guilty if he’d been charged by a military commission. That’s exactly what Khalid Sheikh Mohammad tried to do. During his trial before a military commission, KSM announced he wanted to plead guilty and get the death penalty.  But then the trial was aborted when President Obama ordered a halt to the commissions. (“Holder “Reluctantly” Sends KSM to Military Commissions”).

I don’t know about you, but that stunt by itself removed any doubts I had about the competence of the Obama administration to handle national security. In April of this year, 2,500 halal meals later, Holder reluctantly agreed that the mastermind of 9/11 would go before a military commission after all.

As I said, had Abdulmutallab forced the government to try him all the way to a verdict, I’m sure the U.S. Attorney’s Office would have persuaded the jury to convict him.  That’s not the issue here.

But there’s no basis whatever for DOJ’s claim that Abdulmutallab’s guilty plea “removes any doubt” that civilian courts are more effective than military commissions for trying enemy combatants. It proves nothing on the subject one way or the other.


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