Lack of Death-Penalty Counsel Brings Guantánamo War Crimes Trial to a Halt

A Guantánamo military commission judge has indefinitely suspended proceedings in the death-penalty trial of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, accused of planning al-Qaida’s alleged 2000 bombing of the Navy warship USS Cole off the coast of Yemen. Expressing exasperation over his continuing inability to compel civilian death-penalty lawyers to return to the case, Air Force Colonel Vance Spath (pictured) halted the proceedings on February 16. “I am abating these proceedings indefinitely,” Spath said. “We’re done until a superior court tells me to keep going.” Nashiri’s entire civilian defense team resigned for undisclosed ethical reasons, amid allegations that military officials had violated attorney-client privilege by eavesdropping on legal meetings at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility at which Nashiri has been held for the majority of his 15 years in U.S. custody. The resignations of veteran death-penalty defender Rick Kammen and civilian attorneys Rosa Eliades and Mary Spears followed Spath's refusal to allow the defense lawyers to investigate something that Kammen had discovered in a site reserved for attorney-client meetings. Because the discovery involved classified information, the lawyers were prohibitted from discussing it with their client, placing them, they said in an impossible ethical bind. Citing this ethical problem, the lawyers sought and received permission from Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker, the chief defense counsel for the Military Commissions Defense Organization, to withdraw from the case, leaving Nashiri's defense solely in the hands of a single military lawyer, Navy Lt. Alaric Piette, who had never tried a murder case. Spath then ordered Baker to rescind the order, and when Baker refused, sentenced him to 21 days of confinement for contempt of court. Harvey Rishikof, the Convening Authority of the Guantánamo tribunals, released Baker from confinement pending appeal and Spath and Piette have repeatedly clashed over Piette's request to have an experienced death-penalty lawyer appointed as his co-counsel in the case. Spath’s abatement of the proceedings came on the last day of a weeklong hearing in which Eliades and Spears ignored prosecutorial subpoenas to appear in court by video feed. After assembling the defense and prosecution in the court, Spath delivered what media reports described as "a 30-minute monologue" expressing frustration over having his orders ignored, alleged inaction by Pentagon officials to help him return the counsel to the case, and uncertainty over his authority raised by Baker's actions. “We need somebody to tell us, ‘Is that really what that says despite every other court system in America thinking differently?’” Spath said. “We need action from somebody other than me. And we’re not getting it.” Spath, who said he was considering retiring from the Air Force, said he had debated “for hours” whether to dismiss the case, but chose not to, saying that would have “reward[ed] the defense for their clear misbehavior and misconduct.” Nashiri, who has been diagnosed with PTSD and depression, remains a law-of-war detainee at Guantánamo Bay’s secretive Camp 7, which houses both captives facing war crimes trials and uncharged war prisoners.

(Carol Rosenberg, Frustrated judge halts Guantánamo’s USS Cole war crimes trial, Miami Herald, February 16, 2018.) See GuantánamoU.S. MilitaryProsecutorial Misconduct, and Representation.