Old School Justice

November 18, 2010

Yesterday in a courtroom in downtown Manhattan nothing very special happened. A jury of ordinary New Yorkers sifted the evidence presented to them and convicted the defendant of a serious charge they felt the Prosecution had substantiated.

The defendant in question was Ahmed Ghailani who was accused of playing a supporting role in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa. The bombings were horrific. In Nairobi at least 212 people were killed including embassy staff and many local Kenyan residents. In Dar es Salaam at least 11 people were killed. Many hundreds more were severely injured by the blasts.

Ghailani has been convicted of conspiracy to destroy US government buildings with explosives. He faces a minimum sentence of twenty years and maximum sentence of life in prison. He is now a convicted felon. Due process was observed. Evidence collected illegally was excluded. Justice was done.

That’s the way it’s supposed to be. As Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss), outgoing Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, put it:

“I trust our men and women in uniform to protect the public. I trust our system of jurisprudence in America. I don’t care how bad you are, we can still put you on trial and if the evidence warrants a conviction you’ll get it.”

Susan F. Hirsch, whose husband was killed in the Tanzania attack, thanked the jury for its service, but added:

“I can’t help but feel that the case would have been stronger had Ghailani been brought to trial when he was captured in 2004.”

It’s an important point from someone directly concerned in this case – a little more police work and a lot less thuggery would have served the prosecution’s case much better.

Of course it didn’t take long for the fear-mongers to regroup and for their chorus of disapproval to reach the airwaves. Representative Peter King (R-NY) issued a statement in which he said he was “disgusted at the total miscarriage of justice” and that Ghailani’s conviction demonstrated “the absolute insanity” of trying terrorism suspects in federal court. No, I didn’t quite follow his logic either.

I also take particular exception to being lectured on terrorism by King who for decades was one of the Provisional IRA’s most vocal supporters in the United States. King will soon replace Thompson as Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, a farce so black you couldn’t make it up.

Representative King was joined by Senator Lindsay Graham in calling for future trials to be held in Military Commissions, this despite the fact that federal courts have now successfully heard more than 400 terrorism-related cases since 9/11 and Military Commissions have limped their way over several years to completing a grand total of five trials – the majority concluded through plea deals which resulted in lighter sentences than Ghailani will now receive.

Don’t be fooled by the mock outrage. The system worked. A real trial took place in lower Manhattan. It was a trial that Americans don’t need to apologize for. It was trial that the victims of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam deserved. It was a trial that started to rehabilitate the tarnished image of American justice. Don’t let the Obama administration retreat from this important step in the right direction.