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Judge to Consider Sept. 11 Suspects’ Confession Offers

December 8, 2008 at 6:25 PM EST
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The alleged architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four other suspects said Monday they would plead guilty to terror charges knowing their convictions would carry the death penalty. A Miami Herald reporter examines the developments.
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JIM LEHRER: And to our second legal story, possible confessions at Guantanamo, and to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: Today’s hearings at Guantanamo Bay were supposed to be pre-trial proceedings for five detainees accused of plotting the 9/11 terror attacks. Instead, the judge announced the five men, including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, wished to confess.

For more, we turn to Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald in Guantanamo Bay.

Carol, how did the group of defendants let the judge know they wanted to plead guilty rather than move ahead with the trial?

CAROL ROSENBERG, The Miami Herald: Ray, we learned today that, on Nov. 4, Election Day, these five men met for about eight hours, and they wrote a note to the judge. They said, “We want to confess.” And they made it clear through questioning in court today that that meant they wanted to enter guilty pleas.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, these five, as I understand it, include some of the best-known names, if you will, the most notorious of the alleged criminals from the 9/11 attack. Remind us who’s included in this group.

CAROL ROSENBERG: These are the best-known captives. President Bush has referred to them at the White House.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is the lead defendant. He allegedly put the plot together on September 11th.

His nephew, a man named Ammar al-Baluchi, allegedly helped them find training in the United States, the hijackers.

We also have Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who supposedly tried to get a visa on September — to join the September 11th plot and said at an earlier hearing that he couldn’t get a visa to come to the United States.

A Saudi man named Mustafa al-Hawsawi, who supposedly financed the plot.

And Walid bin Attash, a Yemeni who supposedly ran the training camp in Afghanistan where the muscle hijackers, the people who were supposedly on the plane, not the pilots, but the people who I would say terrorized and took control of those planes, were trained, in Walid bin Attash’s camp. That’s the allegation.

Response from the judge

Carol Rosenberg
Miami Herald
The judge has asked the government, the prosecution, to research whether or not in a capital criminal death penalty case, which this is, you can have the case go to the jury with a confession, with a guilty plea, or whether there has to be a trial.

RAY SUAREZ: After all these years, to have all these men announce these intentions together, how did the judge respond? Did he challenge these pleas in open court?

CAROL ROSENBERG: Yes. That's not going to happen today. That didn't happen today, and that's not going to happen today. They are not entering those pleas.

The judge has asked the government, the prosecution, to research whether or not in a capital criminal death penalty case, which this is, you can have the case go to the jury with a confession, with a guilty plea, or whether there has to be a trial.

RAY SUAREZ: Did he challenge each of these men in open court? Did they have to declare their intention, their -- to affirm in court that they meant what they said in this note to the judge?

CAROL ROSENBERG: He did. He questioned them one by one. The fifth man, Mustafa Hawsawi, his attorney, who is an Army major, said there's a question of his mental competence.

And the other one, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, there's also a question of his mental competence. So those two -- there was less questioning, but the other three men, he asked them if they intended to enter a guilty plea, would they enter a guilty plea, and, one by one, they said that's what they wanted to do.

Charges

Carol Rosenberg
Miami Herald
These men are accused of training, financing, plotting the attacks.

RAY SUAREZ: During the presidential campaign, both major candidates and, after the election, President-elect Obama has announced the intention to close down the prison camp and possibly return these men to American justice.

Were they trying to preclude a trial and wrap this up before a new president takes office?

CAROL ROSENBERG: I don't know what they were trying to do. What they said -- what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed said is that he has no faith in this system. He said, "Judge, the CIA, President Bush, military defense attorneys, they're all the same to me."

He doesn't distinguish between the people assigned to help him, the people assigned to judge him, and the CIA, the people who kept him in secret custody for a number of years before he ever came here to Guantanamo.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it clear that all the charges for all the men carry the death penalty? And what would happen to a death penalty case if they decided to plead guilty instead of go to trial?

CAROL ROSENBERG: This is a capital case. The Pentagon is seeking military execution, the death penalty, in this case. And that would be up to a jury, 12 senior U.S. military officers, to decide the punishment. But the issue is whether they have to hear the facts and make a finding of the determination of guilt.

These men are accused of training, financing, plotting the attacks. And so it would be up to a jury to determine which specific acts they did in order to afterwards, if they found them guilty, decide whether they would hand down that punishment.

Timeframe of hearing

Carol Rosenberg
Miami Herald
We don't even have another hearing date. I can't imagine that we'll be back down here on this trial before Inauguration Day.

RAY SUAREZ: From what you know now -- and given the turn that's been taken in these proceedings -- could this be wrapped up one way or another before the Obama administration takes office?

CAROL ROSENBERG: No way. No way. The judge created a briefing schedule. He wants defense attorneys and prosecutors to go back and look at the law that created this war court, to decide whether or not this unique turn, handing down a guilty plea, fits into the war crimes tribunal that was created at Congress in 2006.

RAY SUAREZ: So the next proceeding, the next piece of this process that's meant to happen in court is what?

CAROL ROSENBERG: We don't even have another hearing date. I can't imagine that we'll be back down here on this trial before Inauguration Day.

RAY SUAREZ: Carol Rosenberg, thanks for joining us.