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Terrorism Trials and the Article III Courts after Abu Ali


Stephen I. Vladeck


American University - Washington College of Law

April 16, 2010

Texas Law Review, Forthcoming
American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2010-09

Abstract:     
To say that it is difficult to divorce the debate over the suitability of trying terrorism suspects in the Article III courts from the politics of the moment would be an epic understatement. Especially in light of the Obama Administration’s decisions to (1) try the “9/11 defendants” in the civilian courts and (2) subject Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to civilian - rather than military - jurisdiction, recent months have witnessed a renewed barrage of objections to subjecting such extraordinary cases to the ordinary processes of our criminal justice system. These critiques have included claims that such trials make the city in which they occur a target for future attacks; that they provide the defendants with a platform from which to spew anti-American propaganda; that they risk publicly revealing information about intelligence sources and methods; that they are enormously costly both with regard to the security measures they require and the judicial resources they consume; and, most substantively, that they put pressure on the courts to sanction exceptional departures from procedural or evidentiary norms that will eventually become settled as the rule - what we might characterize as either a “distortion effect” or a “seepage problem.”

Although these arguments are not new, they do raise fundamental questions about whether the civilian courts are able effectively to function in certain high-profile terrorism cases and to balance the rights of the defendants with the very real practical, logistical, and substantive difficulties that such prosecutions tend to raise. And while any number of groups have attempted to answer these questions at the macro level, there have been few concerted studies of individual trials. This symposium article attempts a different approach, focusing on the specific procedural and evidentiary issues confronted in one of the more legally significant of the post-September 11 criminal prosecutions completed as of this Article - the trial of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali.

As this article suggests, Abu Ali is a microcosm both of the unique difficulties these cases present and the ways in which such issues have generally been resolved by federal trial judges exercising creativity and flexibility. Moreover, Abu Ali provides particular proof of the extent to which advancements in courtroom technology may well mitigate at least some of the practical obstacles that courts face in transnational terrorism cases. Finally, whatever difficulties Abu Ali may have presented for the civilian criminal justice system, it is not at all clear why the same difficulties wouldn’t also be present had Abu Ali been tried in a military commission. The claimed errors at trial that were analyzed by the Fourth Circuit were all constitutionally grounded, and there is little in the way of precedent for the proposition that either the Fifth Amendment’s privilege against self-incrimination or the Sixth Amendment’s right to confrontation have less force before a military tribunal - especially where the defendant is a U.S. citizen.

To be sure, like this Article’s conclusions, its aim is modest. There are a host of reasons why it would be wrong to draw sweeping lessons from the story of one particular case, no matter how significant that one case may be. In addition, even an assessment just of the Abu Ali litigation is lacking for any appreciation of the myriad problems that government or defense counsel likely encountered behind the scenes; the story told here is one reconstructed entirely from the public record, a record that could also be read with a far more skeptical eye. Nevertheless, my hope is that a candid discussion of the Abu Ali litigation - including its triumphs and its shortcomings - will add meaningful substantive content to a conversation that, for the moment, seems awash in unsubstantiated (and largely partisan) rhetoric.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 52

Keywords: Terrorism, Civilian Courts, Military Commissions, Miranda, Confrontation Clause, CIPA, Torture, National Security

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Date posted: April 16, 2010  

Suggested Citation

Vladeck, Stephen I., Terrorism Trials and the Article III Courts after Abu Ali (April 16, 2010). Texas Law Review, Forthcoming; American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2010-09. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1591065

Contact Information

Stephen I. Vladeck (Contact Author)
American University - Washington College of Law ( email )
4801 Massachusetts Avenue N.W.
Washington, DC 20016
United States
202-274-4241 (Phone)
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