U.S. Military

Federal Appeals Court Removes Military Judge From Case For Comments Prejudging 9/11 Detainee's Guilt

A federal appeals court in Washington has ordered the recusal of a military judge from hearing an appeal in the Guantánamo military commission death penalty trial of five defendants accused of direct responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. A unanimous three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled on August 8 that Judge Scott L. Silliman of the United States Court of Military Commission Review (CMCR) was disqualified from participating in appeals in the case because of prior public comments he had made prejudging the guilt of accused 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. Lawyers for Mohammad had petitioned the court to have Silliman removed from the case, citing more than a dozen instances in which, they said, Silliman had made comments exhibiting a constitutionally intolerable risk of bias. Before becoming a judge, Silliman gave an interview to The World Today in 2010 about the case of Guantánamo Bay detainee Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani. During that interview, he said: “We’ve got the major conspirators in the 9/11 attacks still at Guantánamo Bay—Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others.” Later in the same interview, Silliman compared Ghailani's culpability to that of Mohammed, calling them "two totally different types of cases” and saying “the magnitude of what they did is very different.” The judges wrote that “the Court can hardly perceive how calling Petitioner one of the ‘major conspirators in the 9/11 attacks’ and referring to what he 'did’ is anything other than the expression of an opinion concerning his responsibility for those attacks.” Such statements, they wrote, required Silliman to disqualify himself from the case. Because “Judge Silliman failed to do so," the court wrote, Mohammad had provided "clear and indisputable” grounds for his removal. Mohammad's petition also cited remarks made by Silliman in a 2008 interview with the Los Angeles Times, where he said that “we’re going to have a military commission for those the United States believes, and most of the world acknowledges, to be ring leaders of the 9/11 attacks.” The petition also said that Silliman was quoted in another media interview in 2011 discussing how and where Mohammad “will be” executed. The ruling vacates a June 29 order by the CMCR that had reinstated two charges against the defendants that the trial judge had dismissed. The CMCR will now have to re-hear the government's appeal of that issue before a new panel. University of Texas Law Professor Steve Vladeck, who represents several Guantánamo detainees in petitions seeking U.S. Supreme Court review of their cases, called the decision “yet another stinging rebuke" of the CMCR by the Court of Appeals. He said the decision in Mohammad's case puts off resolution of another question raised concerning the CMCR, “whether active-duty military officers (including the other two judges on the CMCR panel that originally heard the government’s appeal) may lawfully serve as judges on the CMCR."

Lawyers Seek Supreme Court Review Of Alleged Torture As Accused USS Cole Bomber Awaits Capital Trial

Lawyers for Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, the man accused of plotting the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, are seeking U.S. Supreme Court intervention to prevent his trial before a military tribunal in which Nashiri faces the death penalty if convicted. The petition for a writ of certiorari asks the Court to allow Nashiri's lawyers to challenge his military detention—and efforts to try him in a military tribunal rather than a civilian court—because the CIA admittedly subjected him to 14 years of "physical, psychological and sexual torture." Hundreds of pages of documents chronicle Nashiri's experiences. These documents include evidence that Nashiri was subjected to waterboarding, forcible sodomy, starvation, rectal force-feeding, sleep deprivation, being placed in a coffin-sized box for a total of 11 days and a box the size of an office safe for 29 hours, and being threatened with a racked gun and a revved power drill while being suspended, naked and shackled, from the ceiling of a cell in a black site one CIA agent described as "the closest thing he has seen to a dungeon." Dr. Sondra Crosby, an expert on the medical and psychological effects of torture, wrote in October 2015 that Nashiri, "is most likely irreversibly damaged by torture that was unusually cruel and designed to break him." She predicted that Nashiri is likely to "decompensate fully during his trial." The heavily redacted descriptions of torture contained in Nashiri's petition are based on a prosecution timeline of his time at black sites, a gradual collection of declassified information, and recently published memoirs by a former CIA contract psychologist. All of the interrogation practices are also documented in the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's controversial 2014 report, known as “The Torture Report.” Nashiri's case presents a range of important factual, legal, and evidentiary issues, but without Supreme Court intervention, he will not have any legal mechanism to obtain appellate review of them prior to trial. Although Nashiri is considered one of Guantánamo’s 15 most “high-value” prisoners, detained in a secret location in a special jail known as "Camp Seven," his lawyers argue he is actually an intellectually limited al-Qaeda foot soldier, not a criminal mastermind. In a federal civilian court, evidence obtained as a result of the torture to which the CIA admits Nashiri was subjected would be inadmissible; but in a military tribunal, there are questions whether that evidence may be admitted and whether the fact and extent of his torture may be used as evidence in his defense. In addition, Nashiri's case involves potentially sensitive national security matters and CIA videotapes of some of Nashiri's interrogations may have been destroyed, leaving questions both as to what information the government may withhold and what sanctions, if any, there should be for evidence it may have destroyed.

President Obama Commutes Two Death Sentences

On January 17, 2017, President Barack Obama (pictured) commuted the death sentences of Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz, a federal death row prisoner, and Dwight Loving, a military death row prisoner. The two men were among 209 commutations and 64 pardons announced by the White House on the 17th. Ortiz's lawyers sought clemency from the President on the grounds that Ortiz was intellectually disabled, his right to consular notification under the Vienna Convention had been violated, he did not himself commit the murder and was not in the room when it occurred, and he had been denied effective assistance of counsel at trial. Loving's attorneys argued for clemency on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel, racial and gender bias in the selection of members of his court-martial, and Supreme Court rulings that called into question the constitutionality of the process by which the military imposes the death penalty. In Loving's clemency petition, his lawyers state, "Issues of command influence, racial discrimination, and improper panel voting procedures – which were ignored by the courts based on technical legal evidentiary rules – will forever overshadow Loving’s death sentence. Executing him [will] not promote justice or ensure good order and discipline any more than a sentence of life imprisonment." Ortiz's lawyers said they were "incredibly grateful" to President Obama for the commutation. In a statement, Amy Gershenfeld Donnella said, "Mr. Arboleda Ortiz’s case highlights several of the glaring problems that plague the federal system no less than state systems: dreadful lawyering by defense counsel; disproportionate sentencing even among co-defendants; significant racial, economic and geographic disparities in the choice of those who will be tried capitally; and procedural constraints that make it virtually impossible to correct a conviction or sentence imposed, even in violation of the Constitution, when new evidence comes to light." His case, she said, "epitomizes the broken federal death penalty system." Although federal law and the U.S. Constitution both prohibit using the death penalty against persons who are intellectually disabled, Ortiz's trial lawyer never investigated his intellectual disability, Donnella said. As a result, the jurors made their decision on life or death "in a complete vaccuum" and "an intellectually disabled person of color with an IQ of 54 who was never able to learn to read, write, or do simple arithmetic, and could not even tie his shoes until he was ten years old" was sentenced to die. Both Ortiz and Loving will now serve sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

NEW VOICES: Retired Generals Call for Review of Status of Military Veterans Facing Death Penalty

In an op-ed for USA Today, three retired generals call for systemic review of the status of veterans on death row nationwide and urge decision-makers in capital cases to seriously consider the mental health effects of service-related PTSD in determining whether to pursue or to impose the death penalty against military veterans. Calling DPIC's new report, "Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty," "a wake-up call for an issue that few have focused on," Brigadiers General (Ret.) James P. Cullen, David R. Irvine, and Stephen N. Xenakis write that "[c]ountless veterans have endured violence and trauma that few others can fully imagine" but defense attorneys in capital cases "are often not adequately prepared to investigate and present" this evidence and prosecutors and judges often treat it dismissively. They say that, "at a minimum, when a judge or jury is weighing a person’s life or death, they should have full knowledge and understanding of that person’s life history. Veterans with PTSD — and, in fact, all those with serious mental illness at the time of their crime — deserve a complete investigation and presentation of their mental state by the best experts in the field." Citing DPIC's report, the generals discuss the cases of Andrew Brannan, James Davis, and John Thuesen, who suffered from combat-related PTSD but were sentenced to death without adequate consideration of their conditions. They contrast the often untreated "deeply debilitating" long-term wounds of combat PTSD to the physical wounds for which veterans do receive treatment. "PTSD can be treated," they write, "but in one study only about half of the veterans who needed treatment received it." They conclude with a call to action. "We should begin by determining the exact scope of this problem: Who are the veterans on death row? How could their military experience have affected their commission of a crime? How well were their disabilities investigated and presented in court? And what should be done when the system fails them? Veterans facing the death penalty deserve this assistance." (Click image to enlarge.)

DPIC Releases New Report, "Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty"

On November 10, on the eve of Veterans' Day, the Death Penalty Information Center released a new report, Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty. The report examines the plight of U.S. military veterans who have been sentenced to death, estimating that about 300 veterans are currently on death row. Many of these veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other mental disabilities caused or exacerbated by their time in combat. Often when these veterans were on trial facing the death penalty, their military service and related illnesses were barely presented to the jury. The first person executed in 2015, Andrew Brannan, was a decorated Vietnam veteran with PTSD, who had been granted 100% disability by the Veterans Administration. His combat trauma was largely unexplored at trial, and the Georgia Pardons Board denied him clemency. DPIC's press release noted: "As the country prepares to honor its military veterans on November 11, it may be a sobering and surprising revelation that many veterans have been adjudged as 'the worst of the worst,' condemned to death, and executed by the government they once served." The report urges more attention be paid to veterans facing execution: "Early intervention, peer assistance from veterans, and involvement of veteran officials with prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges could all be instrumental in steering a case away from the death penalty," the report states.

The Death Penalty in the U.S. Military

The U.S. military has its own laws and court system separate from those of the states and the federal government. Although the military justice system allows the death penalty, no executions have been carried out in over 50 years. The last execution was the hanging on April 13, 1961 of U.S. Army Private John Bennett for rape and attempted murder. The military death penalty law was struck down in 1983 but was reinstated in 1984 with new rules detailing the aggravating circumstances that make a case death-eligible. Only about one-third of the capital cases tried under this law resulted in a death sentence. As of 1997, military law allows for an alternative sentence of life without parole. Six men are currently on the military death row, which is housed in the disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The President has the power to commute any military death sentence. A 2012 study indicated that defendants of color in the military were twice as likely to be sentenced to death as white defendants.

INTERNATIONAL: German Officials Refuse to Cooperate in Possible Death Penalty Case

German officials are withholding significant evidence in a murder case involving U.S. servicemen because of Germany's opposition to the death penalty. Sean Oliver has been charged with the murder of another member of the U.S. military, Dmitry Chepusov, in Germany. The U.S. Air Force has jurisdiction over the case, but Germany is withholding cooperation unless the U.S. military agrees not to seek a death sentence. German police discovered the body and conducted the autopsy, and are now refusing to hand over several pieces of physical evidence. Germany abolished the death penalty in 1949 and authorities are banned by law from cooperating in foreign cases that could result in the death penalty. The victim's family is also opposing capital punishment for Oliver. Dennis Bushmitch, the victim's brother, said, “We are urging the Americans not to pursue the death penalty.” In 1985, the German government successfully fought extradition of a German citizen accused of two murders in Virginia until a decision was made not to seek a death sentence.

MILITARY DEATH PENALTY: Armed Services Rarely Carry Out Executions

Criminal cases in the U.S. Military are conducted in special courts and under laws that differ from the rest of the country's justice system. Executions in this system are extremely rare. There have been no executions since 1961. "The military is a community of solidarity, a brotherhood and sisterhood, all to its own," said Teresa Norris, a former military defense lawyer who still represents a soldier on death row. "There is a real reluctance to execute fellow soldiers unless it's absolutely the worst kind of case and this is the only way." In 1983, a number of death sentences were commuted to life when a military appeals court found the military death penalty unconstitutional. The law was revised in 1984. One of the most significant concerns about capital punishment in the military is the decentralized nature of its judicial system. Dwight Sullivan, a former Marine prosecutor, said, "Even if you have 2 identical cases, one being prosecuted by one commander at one base and the other being prosecuted by a commander at another base, you may have different outcomes because the commanders may have different philosophies.” There are currently five inmates on the military death row in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, all of whose cases are under legal review. Three are black, two are white. The trial of Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, a psychiatrist charged with a deadly shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, is scheduled to begin August 6.

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