New 9/11 trial judge may preside less than a year

From left, Mustafa al Hawsawi, Ammar al Baluchi, Ramzi bin al Shibh, Walid bin Attash and Khalid Sheik Mohammed pray at their Guantánamo war court arraignment on May 5, 2012. This sketch was reviewed and approved for release by a U.S. military security official.
From left, Mustafa al Hawsawi, Ammar al Baluchi, Ramzi bin al Shibh, Walid bin Attash and Khalid Sheik Mohammed pray at their Guantánamo war court arraignment on May 5, 2012. This sketch was reviewed and approved for release by a U.S. military security official.

The new military judge in the Sept. 11 trial said under questioning by defense attorneys Monday that he had read selections of the case’s six-year record but saw no need to postpone hearings while he caught up on the pretrial proceedings that had come before him in the complex, death-penalty case.

Marine Col. Keith Parrella, the judge who got the job two weeks ago, spent his first morning on the bench in the five-man conspiracy case fielding questions from defense attorneys about his capacity to take on the case, and rejecting suggestions that he should learn in detail what came before him before continuing.

“I’ve been detailed by a competent authority and we’re moving out,” said Parrella, a 24-year career Marine officer who has served as a military judge for a little over two years. He added that he did not volunteer for the position and is expecting to take on a new non-judicial job next summer.

The 9/11 case’s long-serving trial judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, announced his retirement Aug. 27 and assigned Parrella to take over in the same court order. In a possible sign of haste, Parrella said he was sworn in by telephone that day, standing alone in an undisclosed location, with Pohl administering the oath on the other end of the line.

Parrella, 44, said he would not allow anyone to rush him to make decisions. But he said, he believed he could hear legal arguments this week in the case, and make rulings at his own pace while reading six years of motions, more than 20,000 pages of pretrial transcripts and a classified record whose size is not known.

On Monday, Parrella told the defense lawyers, some of whom asked him to recuse himself, that he had done some pick-and-choose reading in the two weeks since getting the job — specifically to include the 2012 transcript of his predecessor’s questioning by defense attorneys, a traditional process in military courts to probe for conflicts, bias and qualifications to serve as a trial judge.

U.S. Marine Corps Col. Keith A. Parrella at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Feb. 2, 2018. Marine Corps photo

In a surprise, the new judge said he had been chosen for and accepted a new non-legal Marine position as commander of U.S. Marine security forces at U.S. embassies worldwide that would take him off the bench on June 1. “From here on out, I wait for orders to be produced,” Parrella said of the prestigious post.

It was not immediately apparent if the Marine Embassy Security position would trump Parrella’s current assignment as the trial judge in the capital case against Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other alleged plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings that killed 2,976 people in New York, at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field.

The position of the chief war court judge, which appoints judges, derives its authority from the Secretary of Defense, currently retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis. The Commandant of the Marine corps chose Parrella for the embassy security assignment around the same time the retiring Army colonel, Pohl, chose him to take on pretrial hearings in the Sept. 11 case, which has no start date.

Case prosecutor Clay Trivett said Parrella’s departure 10 months from now was neither assured nor a reason for recusal.

“Whether you leave or not in a year, you are meantime assigned here,” he said, urging him to press ahead. “Whether it’s economical or not is not a ground for recusal,” he said.

Parrella made no decision on whether to delay motions or recuse himself. He said he would rule Tuesday morning, even as defense lawyers asked him to delay so they could prepare more detailed pleadings on why he should not take the case.

The hearing was the first in the case in years to fall on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Parrella said he would hold an open court session Tuesday and then go into a closed session with lawyers and prosecutors, no public and no accused, to plan how to hold a classified hearing later in the week.

On base, a chapel service and 9.11-kilometer run were planned for Tuesday evening.

Defense lawyers said Parrella’s 2014-15 Marine fellowship as an on-loan prosecutor at the Department of Justice’s Counterterrorism section of the National Security Division presented a particular ethical conflict because four of the nine prosecutors currently on the case work for the same unit.

Trivett said that while it’s true he and Groharing, a Marine Reserves colonel, are presently employed as civilian prosecutors in the same counterterrorism unit, they did not then and do not now work out of the Department of Justice office where Parrella was a fellow. Instead, he said, both men are civilian Justice Department employees assigned to work at the Pentagon’s office of the Chief Prosecutor for Military Commissions.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg