It was over in less than five minutes. In his first appearance in public since allegedly trying to blow up a packed US airliner on Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Friday pleaded not guilty before a federal judge in Detroit.
The slight Nigerian native was barely taller than his female public defender, Miriam Siefer. Dressed in an oversized white T-shirt, he walked with a slight limp. Asked if he had taken any drugs or alcohol in the past 24 hours, he answered “some pain pills.”
He stood at a podium in Detroit’s federal courthouse and answered a few questions from Magistrate Judge Mark Randon. His attorneys then waived the reading of the indictment, and the judge entered a plea of not guilty for him.
It is unlikely that a quick trial is in store for Mr. Abdulmutallab. US authorities undoubtedly will want to examine thoroughly every step of his journey across continents – from Nigeria, to Yemen, then through Amsterdam to Detroit – before proceeding.
The evidence against Abdulmutallab seems to be overwhelming. Given the numerous eyewitness accounts of his actions, which allegedly involve trying to ignite explosives sewn into his clothes, the best his lawyers might hope for is some sort of plea deal, in which he talks about his links with Al Qaeda in return for some reduction in sentence.
“Ultimately there may be a plea deal that’s worked out, but it is hard to know in these kinds of cases. Some folks want their day in court for reasons that don’t make sense to the rest of us,” says Professor Tobias, referring to the fact that some accused terrorists have used court proceedings as forums in which to espouse their beliefs.
If the case does proceed to trial, national-security considerations could be a further complication. The need to keep intelligence sources and methods secret could lead to the closing of some of its proceedings.
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