Are Two Judicial Systems Better Than One?: A Look at the Debate Between Military Tribunal Commissions v. Federal Civilian Trials in Terrorism Cases

Lindsey Overton, Albany Government Law Review Member

 

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other individuals who are accused of planning and executing the September 11, 2001 attacks have been in U.S. custody since shortly after the attacks occurred and have yet to be prosecuted.[1] Although proceedings for a trial by military commission had commenced, in November 2009 Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the four men would be moved to New York and tried in federal court.[2] New York officials quickly objected due to concerns over security and the costs associated with such a trial.[3] The Obama administration subsequently suspended its plans for federal civilian trials; however, more than a year later, no action has been taken to bring the five accused terrorists to justice.[4]

Shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, then President George W. Bush established military tribunal commissions to try individuals accused of partaking in acts of terrorism, particularly those acts associated with the September 11th attacks.[5] Since the employment of the military tribunals, there has been a heated debate regarding the appropriateness of such commissions in comparison to federal civilian trials.  New York, the site of the vast majority of the destruction and the prime location for potential trials, has been at the center of this debate.  While there have been many obstacles to the use of military commissions, including U.S. Supreme Court rulings, current President Barack Obama has, despite his initial plan, allowed the commissions to function as a lawful means of administering justice within the American criminal justice system.[6] The Obama administration has yet to issue a final decision on where to try the “high-value detainees,” including the previously mentioned September 11, 2001 masterminds.[7] While some would like to see the detainees tried in New York, others oppose that venue due to the possibility of more terrorist attacks as a result of what would be high-profile proceedings.[8] The opponents are also concerned that the stricter civilian evidence standards could result in more acquittals and more lenient sentences.[9] This article will examine the results of accused terrorists tried in military commissions with those tried in federal civilian courts in an attempt to discern which process is the more effective means for administering justice.

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