9/11 relatives, defense attorneys share emotional meeting

For 90 minutes, family members of 9/11 victims met with the lawyers who are defending the men accused of planning the attacks that killed almost 3,000 people.

01/28/2013 5:28 PM

09/23/2013 9:49 AM

Some victims wept. So did at least one of the U.S. military officers assigned to defend the accused Sept. 11 conspirators at their murder trial.

For 90 exceptional minutes Sunday, lawyers for the accused terrorists and the parents of young men killed in the World Trade Center huddled in a ramshackle hangar at the war court ahead of this week’s hearing. And they exchanged stories through a veil of pain.

“In the beginning there was discomfort. There was some anger. There was some tears,” said Phyllis Rodriguez, whose 31-year-old son Greg was killed working at the finance firm Cantor Fitzgerald on the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

But by the end, said Loreen Sellitto, mother of 23-year-old Matthew who also was killed at Cantor Fitzgerald, “I saw them love our Constitution. Their goal is to present a case and defend someone. It’s what our country is built on.”

The victims’ family members have always been the most painful part of these proceedings. Chosen by lottery from a Pentagon list of parents, children and spouses of the Sept. 11 dead, they number at most 10, are brought to this base in special Defense Department charter flights, put up in townhouses and squired around the base by both plain-clothed and uniformed escorts eager to accommodate.

Others eligible for the Guantánamo lottery can watch remotely from four closed-circuit sites along the Eastern Seaboard from Massachusetts to Maryland.

And while some of the family members have flatly refused to meet with defense lawyers and expressed disgust that these men should be afforded robust government-funded defense teams, this week’s trip included the rare meeting between some of the victims’ family members and those who have taken an oath to defend their kin’s accused killers.

The session was closed. Some participants declined to speak of it. Others recounted that it started out with one victim’s mother asking the lawyers how they had come to represent Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other men accused of conspiring in the murder of 2,976 people, their sons included.

Or, as Rodriguez, who instigated the meeting, put it: “How does it feel to be representing such horrible people?”

Some lawyers spoke of their duty as officers of the court, and to the U.S. military and U.S. Constitution. One mentioned that his wife wasn’t happy with his choice to take the case, but that somebody had to do it.

Then one defense lawyer gingerly told the group that he would be asking the judge this week to allow his client to get a call from home. Ammar al Baluchi’s father had died and he wanted to speak to his mother. Both the military and Red Cross would listen in on the call.

One of the family members offered the opinion that “these guys should suffer. I don’t think he should talk to his mother,” said a defense lawyer who was in the room. Rodriguez said she thought not of the accused but of Baluchi’s mother.

“I felt very sad,” she said. “I felt sad for his mother.”

Left unsaid was that, should the tribunal ever convict these men, family members of victims will be asked to testify in the punishment phase of the Sept. 11 death penalty trial.

And these defense lawyers, civilian and military, argue that their clients were so brutally tortured in CIA custody that the United States lost the moral authority to execute them.

Two of the family members offered that they also oppose execution in this case.

Rodriguez, who lives in White Plains, N.Y., said she’s morally opposed to the death penalty “in this case or any case. I don’t think the government has a right to take a life.”

Sellitto, a Naples snowbird from Morristown, N.J., had a different motive. Give them life sentences, she said.

“We would control when they eat, when they pray, when they exercise,” she explained. That way, they would be confronted day in and day out with “the culture they tried to destroy.”

Baluchi’s death-penalty defender, Jay Connell, who invariably mentions at press conferences that the victims are in our “thoughts and meditations,” said it was a painful but important meeting.

“People cried. People expressed themselves beautifully.”

Was it hard?

“Anything involving Guantánamo is hard — from opening one’s email to talking with people who have lost loved ones.”

“There was crying,” confirmed Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas, a career Air Force lawyer who said he was among those who teared up.

Later, John Woods, a Rockland County, N.Y., man who served as a Marine in Vietnam, said he chose to stay away.

He lost his 26-year-old son, Jimmy, in the World Trade Center, too, and could barely choke out, “He was a great guy,” when speaking to reporters about what brought him to Guantánamo Bay.

His wife Joyce, Jimmy’s mother, finished for him: “We miss him every second of every day. We’re here to bear witness, hopefully to see justice.”

But the path to justice is proving to be a slow one.

Rather than focus on the terrible crime that took their loved ones’ lives, these court proceedings are about the rights of the men accused of carrying out the crime. Legal motions argued in court Monday discussed the protective order controlling classified evidence in the case, and the addition of Los Angeles defense lawyer Gary Sowards to Mohammed’s case and alleged al Qaida lieutenant Walid bin Attash’s apparent decision to fire Marine Maj. Bill Hennessy from his team.

Mohammed and Bin Attash wore camouflage jackets atop their traditional white tunics to court, and sat mute as the judge asked them about the changes in their defense team.

Meantime, Justice Department lawyer Joanna Baltes noted in court, the process of turning over classified evidence in the case to the defense lawyers has not yet begun. An actual trial before a tribunal of military officers is likely a year or more away.

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