Guantánamo

84-year-old testifies about son’s call from doomed 9/11 plane. Accused terrorists boycott it.

Smoke billows from one of the towers of the World Trade Center and flames and debris explode from the second tower, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.
Smoke billows from one of the towers of the World Trade Center and flames and debris explode from the second tower, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. ASSOCIATED PRESS

All five accused plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks chose not to attend a session Friday that heard from an elderly man who lost his family in the worst terror attack on U.S. soil.

Although the alleged Sept. 11 conspirators were given the option of attending, the public and press were not. The judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, declared it a closed pretrial session for the purposes of preserving potential trial testimony and warned participants not to talk about it.

In it, Lee Hanson, 84, of Connecticut, was to describe what he learned that day in a phone call from his 32-year-old son Peter, who was aboard the hijacked United 175, and then saw on television as the aircraft crashed into the World Trade Center.

Lee Hanson’s daughter-in-law, Sue, 34, and 2-year-old granddaughter were also on board. Christine Hanson is the youngest victim of the attacks that claimed 2,976 lives. Her stuffed Peter Rabbit is on display at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York.

“He watched on television as his family was murdered,” prosecutor Ed Ryan said in open court Wednesday.

Five men accused of directing, helping finance and training for the attack are in pretrial hearings. No start date has been set. Pohl gave the accused the prerogative of voluntarily waiving attendance at the testimony, and none showed up.

The lawyer for alleged mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed blamed the absence of the accused on the prosecutors’ decision to schedule the testimony on a Friday. Some of the accused have opted out of Friday hearings to take part in Islam’s holy day prayers.

“There is not any intention of expressing disrespect for Mr. Hanson or any of the victim family members,” attorney David Nevin said. “It’s just purely a matter of religious observance.”

He called Friday “the equivalent of Sunday in the Christian world” and described his client who once boasted he was responsible for the 9/11 attacks “from A to Z” as “a strong believer.” Nevin said if prosecutors had held the deposition the day before Mohammed “quite likely” would have attended.

New Yorker Daniel D’Allara — whose twin brother John, a New York police rescue specialist, was killed on Sept. 11 — said of the boycott: “I believe today was their holy day. What a great country we have.”

Cass Baksh-Hussain, whose insurance executive uncle Michael was killed on Sept. 11, his first day of work at the World Trade Center, said:

“However you may feel in regards to the military tribunal or any of this process, I just ask that you remember that those men, those monsters on trial, they have lived 16 years longer than anyone else that they murdered that day.”

About the Sept. 11 mass murder trial

At the earliest, lawyers could start selecting a U.S. military jury to hear the case in March 2018. Meantime, the military judge is essentially creating time-capsule testimony — in words and video — that could be screened or recited at the death-penalty trial and, if any man is convicted, during a sentencing phase.

Prosecutors had proposed to capture testimony from 10 relatives of Sept. 11 victims this past October during an open Guantánamo war court session. Defense attorneys protested the timing, on the eve of the presidential elections, and argued open court depositions could contaminate the jury pool.

Pohl agreed. He decided to hear only from Hanson at Guantánamo because his testimony might be used at the trial itself, meaning the defendants could be there to watch. The other nine people were to discuss the impact on their lives of the attacks, and perhaps their opinions on whether the death-penalty was appropriate, for use if the five men are convicted in this capital case.

It was not known whether prosecutors were allowed to elicit Hanson’s opinion on a potential punishment on Friday.

MORE NEWS: News media loses Sept. 11 trial transparency challenge

Hanson’s testimony is clouded by the absence this week of one of the defendants’ death-penalty defenders, Cheryl Bormann. She fell and broke her arm virtually on the eve of travel to the hearing, requiring surgery. Each of the accused is entitled by law to a learned counsel, a lawyer who specializes in defending a client in capital punishment cases.

The judge made clear in court Wednesday that, by going forward without Bormann, prosecutors were taking “a risk” that Hanson’s testimony might be disqualified from use at the trial against one or all five accused terrorists under what he called a “Bruton analysis.”

Had the accused showed up, it would have been the first Sept. 11 pretrial session attended by the alleged terrorists without the public watching. A consortium of news organizations, including the Miami Herald and its parent company McClatchy, asked Pohl to let the public watch the deposition and were denied.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

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