The Presumption of Guilt
Human rights groups, civil libertarians, and those of us who opposed the Bush Justice Department's disdain for the role of the federal courts in trying individuals once labeled "enemy combatants" have championed the push to bring the Guantanamo detainees to federal court. As it happened, most Americans did not. Many evidently assume that federal court equals a higher shot at acquittal (and greater odds of terrorist acts to free the prisoner). Despite conviction after conviction, a storm of political and media criticism has played up the strange idea that the most significant terrorist the US has ever had in custody would somehow beat the rap against him. Although it is increasingly politically incorrect to insist on this point, in the American system of justice, a trial—even in the context of terrorism—should not, in fact, have a foreordained verdict. That verdict should not be known in advance, nor should it, in essence, need to be announced by the Attorney General before the trial begins. A jury should consider all the facts that the law allows to be presented to them in the context of the presumption of innocence; and those 12 jurors should come up with their own determination of guilt or innocence.
In the case of KSM, the courts would confront a figure whose role in terrorist attacks on US targets is known and recognized around the world. And yet, even with this, trust in the system is so broken that fear of acquittal trumps all else—despite the fact that, in case after case where, unlike 9/11, no attack came about, even where an FBI informant seemed to be doing much of the planning, convictions have still been the rule.
Had there been a full-scale acquittal over the past nine years, especially in one of the terror cases that look suspiciously like cases of entrapment, the system would be stronger for it. A candidate for such a fate would certainly have been one or more of the minor defendants in the Bronx synagogue bomb plot case this past summer. There, an FBI sting operation led four men to place what they thought were bombs at a synagogue and a Jewish community center in Riverdale, New York, and to purchase an inoperable surface-to-air Stinger missile to fire at airplanes at Stewart Air Base in Newburgh, New York.
Despite allegations of FBI entrapment, an entrapment defense failed, even though the predisposition of the lead defendant in the case, James Cromitie, was towards anti-Semitism rather than jihadist violence—a subject the FBI informant claimed to know about. However, even the most peripheral players in this hapless "plot," one of whom seemed at best only dimly aware of what was going on, were convicted. Here was yet another recent moment when a chance to distinguish between guilt and innocence in a terrorism case was thrown away.
Since September 12, 2001, Americans have been systematically cowed to a degree that is hard to grasp, and the justice system in this country has in no way been inoculated from this virus. If you need a measure of which way the currents of politics are running today, start with the political calculation that the Obama administration has had to make when it comes to the trial of KSM, which has only grown that much more difficult in the wake of the Ghailani verdict.
So, too, for those of us who favor civilian trials. How do we really feel about having been put in a position where, to defend the merits of the system of justice, we feel compelled to equate certain conviction with the notion of success?
The deepest principle of American justice is being tested, right now in Washington, in lower Manhattan in the wake of the Ghailani verdict, and elsewhere. With terrorism trials, the more serious they get, the more the presumption of innocence seems to lie at the mercy of politics.