Monday, November 16, 2009



On Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would try several key al-Qaeda suspects for their alleged role in the 9/11 attacks. That was big news; under President Bush's direction, the Justice Department deferred exclusively to the military for handling so-called "enemy combatants" captured in the "War on Terror." Unlike President Bush, Obama decided to heed the United States Constitution and prosecute these suspects before U.S. civilian courts. After all, these detainees are not "soldiers captured in War" under the Geneva Convention, because al-Qaeda did not sign the treaty. Yet American authorities hold them on American territory for breaking American laws. In such circumstances, there is only one lawful alternative: Try them in domestic courts.

This was a significant step. But the Justice Department announced something even more significant: It would try the suspects in New York.

From a legal perspective, it makes little difference where the sovereign chooses to try a criminal defendant for violating the law. Here, the United States seeks to convict terrorists for plotting to attack the World Trade Center and ultimately destroy it. As long as the sovereign holds the defendant in his realm, he can prosecute him under the ancient principle of "personal jurisdiction over the body." If you are present in a country and you commit a crime there, you can be prosecuted for it in that country--it is very simple.

It also makes sense to try 9/11 conspirators in New York from a practical perspective. In criminal trials, venue is proper when it is easy for witnesses to get to the courthouse. Certain districts have a greater interest in trying a case than others, especially when all the "sources of proof" lie in those districts. Venue is also proper when the crime has a direct connection to the locale. Even the United States Constitution says: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed." U.S. Const. Amd. VI. This makes common sense as well as constitutional sense. It is practical--and somehow just--to try cases in the places where the crimes happened. Every jurisdiction has a public interest in punishing wrongdoing in its own borders.

Yet there are times in which it does not make sense to try cases in the most logical places. New York seems the most fitting place to try those accused of destroying the World Trade Center. All the witnesses are there, and obviously New York has a burning local interest in punishing those who caused such havoc in its borders.

But these practical advantages spawn larger concerns. After all, the Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants "a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury." U.S. Const. Amd. VI. It is also guarantees that "no State shall deny any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Id. at Amd. IV, s. 1 The Supreme Court has held repeatedly that a State deprives "a person" of "due process of law" if it does not afford him a "fair trial." For obvious reasons, 9/11 conspirators may not get a "fair trial" by an "impartial jury" in New York. That is why it might not make sense to hold the trial there.

How can any New York jury be impartial about 9/11? Daily newspapers routinely run stories about "dangerous Muslims." Bitter memory about 9/11 runs deep. Many people knew individuals who died in the attacks, or they know their families. 9/11 is a focal point for national anger; and it burns hottest in New York.

These are the people who will sit in the "New York jury pool" when the conspirators step into court in New York. Can they be impartial? Can they render a judgment free from passion, excitement, resentment, anger or emotion? Trials are fair when they are based on evidence admitted under law in open court. They are not fair when they are based on emotional reaction, prejudice or bias.

And how can New Yorkers insulate themselves from pervasive press coverage about the trial? As soon as the Justice Department announced that it would try the suspects in New York, the New York Post published a blaring headline: "NOW DIE! 9/11 Fiends Coming Back to New York for Trial--Next Stop Hell."

That headline reminded me about the famous Supreme Court case about trial publicity and Due Process: Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333 (1966). Sheppard held that every criminal defendant has a right to a "fair trial free from massive, pervasive and prejudicial news coverage" that is "reasonably likely" to lead the jury to find against him based on inadmissible evidence and emotion. The case also concluded that the trial judge has a duty to control press access to the trial, and to monitor every juryman's out-of-court attention to news comment about the case. After all, according to the Court, the State provides trials in order to "adjudicate controversies, both civil and criminal, in the calmness and solemnity of the courtroom according to legal procedures." Id. at 350, 351, quoting Cox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 559, 583 (1965). Those "legal procedures" include the requirement that the jury base its conclusions on evidence admitted in court, not on outside sources or emotion. Id. Prejudicial and pervasive press coverage undermines these goals when it poisons an entire population against a criminal defendant. And it undermines another key goal in our justice system: Fairness.

Many people discount fairness in legal questions. Law professors used to scoff at me when I suggested that certain results in cases were "unfair" or that legal forms resulted in "unfairness." After all, the law attempts to introduce scientific certainty into the maelstrom of human existence. It attempts to govern the ungovernable. In many ways, humans are ungovernable because nothing can control their emotions. Emotions are not reasonable; they are intuitive. Sometimes they flow from perceptible evidence. At times they do not. Legal formalism fails when it refuses to accept just how important emotion and intuition are to the human mind. Like emotion, it is difficult to quantify fairness. We know it when we feel it. We know when a process is unfair, even if we cannot articulate why. Fairness is important to the law, even if it draws ridicule from law professors. And sometimes even the law recognizes how important it is. In more hopeful moments, even the Supreme Court sees that no legal rule can survive unless it comports with intuitive fairness: "[O]ur system of law has endeavored to prevent even the probability of unfairness." Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333, 353 (1966), quoting In re Murchison, 349 U.S. 133, 136 (1955).

I doubt whether the 9/11 suspects will receive a "fair trial" anywhere in the United States. But I am certain they will not receive a fair trial in New York. The fact that the New York Post blared a headline telling the suspects (who are not convicted) to "Go Die" and mentioned "hell" indicates how New Yorkers feel about the case. True, not everyone reads the Post. But it voices a very popular sentiment, and it is almost impossible to avoid seeing such headlines each day. And these are the people who will receive jury duty summonses. Can we expect them to be "unbiased, calm and serene" as they consider "only evidence produced in court" in this case? I think not.

All this begs a question: Why even bother holding a trial at all for these suspects? In theory, the State and the individual should be equally matched at trial. The State attempts to divine the "truth" about the individual's "criminal act," while the individual--whom our system presumes innocent--is free to cast doubt on all the State's claims. As long as he produces a reasonable doubt about his guilt, he must go free.

But this is all theory. Few Americans presume everyday criminal suspects innocent, let alone the 9/11 conspirators. These men have been demonized in the press for over eight years. They have been held in orange jumpsuits at Guantanamo Bay. We have all seen the pictures. Can any American truly presume them innocent? Can any American reflect on them without bias or prejudice? Yet we now expect Americans--in New York, no less--to put aside all their emotions about 9/11, as well as all the negative publicity they have heard about it for the past eight years. We now expect that they will calmly and serenely reflect solely on evidence produced in court. We expect them to drop all their emotions, preconceptions and prejudices. We expect them to magically forget all the horrible things they have been told in the press since 2001. And we even expect them to respond to a judge's command to "exclude any information I deem inadmissible," including confessions induced by torture.

If our jury actually acts in the way the law expects, the 9/11 suspects will get the "fair trial" to which the Constitution entitles them. But people do not simply shut off their bias or emotion. Nor can they erase a fact from their memory simply because a judge says: "Disregard that fact, please." In short, national hysteria surrounding 9/11 for the last decade has so inflamed the American public that there is no way the 9/11 conspirators will get anything approaching a fair trial.

In this case, emotion, prejudice and a rabid press have already made the decision.

As guilty as the conspirators may be, we should step back and ask ourselves how "fair" our process truly is. And while we're at it, perhaps we should wonder whether we even want "fairness" for "monsters."

But if we sacrifice fairness in one case, what happens in the next one?

1 comment:

Timoteo said...

As Slim Pickens' character said to Marlon Brando's character in One Eyed Jacks: "Yeah, kid, you'll get a fair trial...then we gonna HANG ya!"