A landmark court decision was handed down Wednesday in the case against Ahmed Ghailani, a Guantanmo Bay detainee accused of taking part in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. Ghailani, a Tanzanian national, was acquitted of all but one of the 286 charges levied against him, most of which were for the murder of the 224 people killed in the embassy bombings. After a disturbed juror asked to be removed from the deliberation process last week, many feared that the Ghailani trial, the first U.S. detainee trial to be conducted in a civilian court, would yield a hung jury. Few, however, predicted such a propitious verdict for the al-Qeada collaborator, an outcome which carries heavy implication for the Obama administration and its controversial quest to try Guantanamo detainees in the criminal justice system.
The trial took place in lower Manhattan before a jury of six men and six women. In addition to the murder (and attempted murder) charges, Ghailani, who is a former Islamic cleric, was also accused of conspiring with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Ghailani had been held in Guantanamo since September 2006 until being transfered to New York in 2009. The decision to try Ghailani in New York City — a “trial” balloon, if you will — was met with fierce opposition from both hawkish conservatives and heedful liberals alike. The trial proceeded for five weeks and the jury deliberated for five days before rendering its verdict.
Many are already claiming a victory of sorts for the Obama administration, and the Justice Department wasted no time issuing a written statement claiming to be “pleased” that Ghailani “now faces a minimum of 20 years and a potential life sentence for his role in the embassy bombings.” Mason Clutter from the Soros-linked Constitution Project declared, “The system worked here.” Did it? In all likelihood, the now-convicted terrorist will indeed face life in prison. Such glowing pronouncements, however, fundamentally misunderstand the broader — and more disconcerting — issue at stake.
A puzzling aspect of the Ghailani case is the one count for which the defendant was found guilty: taking part in a conspiracy to destroy U.S. property. Prima facia, it is unclear how a jury could find someone guilty of conspiracy, but not, by extension, hold that person accountable for the deaths that resulted from that conspiracy.
In ordinary jurisprudence, the prosecution must prove intent beyond a reasonable doubt. In this case, the defense portrayed the defendant as an unwitting collaborator, or, as Ghailani’s attorney Peter Quijano put it:
This innocent, naive boy was used as a dupe by his friends…Call him a pawn, call him a fall guy, but don’t call him guilty.
The upshot is that, according to his defense team, Ghailani knew that he was participating in a concerted effort of some kind, but, hypothetically speaking, this does not necessarily mean that he was aware that what he was participating in was meant to have lethal consequences. At least the jury decided it could not determine intent to kill given the lack of probative evidence and the apparently successful obfuscation of the true nature of the defendant’s state of mind at the time the bombing occurred.
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