US court upholds embassy bombings conviction, rejecting speedy trial claim

The appeals court rejected the argument that Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a former Al Qaeda operative, should have his conviction and life sentence overturned because he didn't have a speedy trial.

Elizabeth Williams/AP/File
In this courtroom sketch, former Al Qaeda operative Ahmed Ghailani listens to proceedings as he is sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 1998 truck bomb attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Jan. 25, 2011 in Federal Court in New York.

A federal appeals court in New York Thursday upheld the conviction and life sentence of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a former Al Qaeda operative who helped assemble parts used in the 1998 truck bomb attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The three-judge panel of the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an argument by Mr. Ghailani’s lawyers that his conviction should be overturned because the US government violated Ghailani’s Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial.

The lawyers argued that there was a five-year delay between the time the US government took custody of Ghailani and when he was actually put on trial.

The Sixth Amendment reads in part: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy … trial.”

Ghailani was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York in 1998 for his alleged role in the embassy bombings. The attacks killed 224 people. Ghailani was captured in 2004, but was not placed on trial until 2010.

In the intervening years, he was held at a secret detention facility and interrogated by the Central Intelligence Agency seeking actionable information about pending terror attacks. He was later transferred to the terror detention camp at Guantánamo Bay. Eventually, he was moved to New York to stand trial in a civilian court.

Ghailani’s lawyers argued that once the government presses formal charges against someone, it must act expeditiously to facilitate a speedy and public trial.

In rejecting that argument, the appeals court said the speedy trial right was not absolute. Instead, the judges said it involved a balancing of interests, including protection of US national security – an interest that could outweigh the speedy trial interest of a criminal defendant.

“We observe nothing in the text or history of the Speedy Trial Clause that requires the government to choose between national security and an orderly and fair justice system,” the court said.

“To the contrary, the Speedy Trial Clause preserves both the interests of the defendants and the societal interest in the integrity of the justice system by balancing those interests to determine whether the requirements of the Clause have been violated.”

The court concluded: “We observe no basis for, and reject in full, Ghailani’s argument that, once having detained a defendant as a national security intelligence asset, the government can no longer bring the defendant to trial.”

The court said there was no bright-line answer to precisely how much of a delay would be too long. But the judges noted that delays of five years and seven years had been upheld in other criminal cases.

The speedy trial right is intended to prevent the government from seeking to punish a defendant through excessive pre-trial detention. It is also intended to prevent the government from delaying a trial in a way that would undercut a defendant’s ability to present an effective defense to the charges.

The court found that the delays in Ghailani’s case did not prejudice his ability to mount a defense, and were unrelated to the criminal prosecution.

“For well over a century, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the government may purposely delay trials for significant periods of time, so long as, on balance, the public and private interests render the delay reasonable,” the appeals court said.

In upholding Ghailani’s sentence of life in prison, the appeals court said it was not substantively unreasonable for a federal judge to send a defendant to prison for the rest of his life after being convicted of conspiring to attack US buildings in a plot that caused the deaths of 224 individuals.

The case is US v. Ghailani (11-320-cr).

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