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.
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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.
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