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June 6, 2009

"U.S. May Permit 9/11 Guilty Pleas in Capital Cases"

The title of this post is the headline of this article in today's New York Times. Here are a few highlights from an article that highlights the fascinating interplay of capital punishment and plea practicies:

The Obama administration is considering a change in the law for the military commissions at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, that would clear the way for detainees facing the death penalty to plead guilty without a full trial.

The provision could permit military prosecutors to avoid airing the details of brutal interrogation techniques.  It could also allow the five detainees who have been charged with the Sept. 11 attacks to achieve their stated goal of pleading guilty to gain what they have called martyrdom.

The proposal, in a draft of legislation that would be submitted to Congress, has not been publicly disclosed. It was circulated to officials under restrictions requiring secrecy.  People who have read or been briefed on it said it had been presented to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates by an administration task force on detention.

The proposal would ease what has come to be recognized as the government’s difficult task of prosecuting men who have confessed to terrorism but whose cases present challenges.  Much of the evidence against the men accused in the Sept. 11 case, as well as against other detainees, is believed to have come from confessions they gave during intense interrogations at secret C.I.A. prisons.  In any proceeding, the reliability of those statements would be challenged, making trials difficult and drawing new political pressure over detainee treatment.

Some experts on the commissions said such a proposal would raise new questions about the fairness of a system that has been criticized as permitting shortcuts to assure convictions.  David Glazier, an associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who has written about the commission system, said: “This unfortunately strikes me as an effort to get rid of the problem in the easiest way possible, which is to have those people plead guilty and presumably be executed.  But I think it’s going to lack international credibility.”

The draft legislation includes other changes administration officials disclosed last month when President Obama said he would continue the controversial military commission system with changes that would increase detainees’ rights.  It is not known whether the White House has approved the proposed death penalty provision.  A White House spokesman declined to comment.

The provision would follow a recommendation of military prosecutors to clarify what they view as an oversight in the 2006 law that created the commissions.  The law did not make clear if guilty pleas would be permitted in capital cases.  Federal civilian courts and courts in most states with capital-punishment laws permit such pleas.

But American military justice law, which is the model for the military commission rules, bars members of the armed services who are facing capital charges from pleading guilty. Partly to assure fairness when execution is possible, court-martial prosecutors are required to prove guilt in a trial even against service members who want to plead guilty.

June 6, 2009 at 12:51 PM | Permalink

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