Criminal prosecutors on a daily basis stare down some sordid and dangerous creatures, among them murderers, wife beaters, child abusers, hard-core drug dealers and gang bangers, with some capable of checking the “all of the above” box.
But few can say they have looked directly into the eyes of the five men accused of initiating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that killed 2,976 innocent people, destroyed families and triggered wars in two Middle Eastern nations, as did Stanislaus County Deputy District Attorney Beth O’Hara Owen last month in Cuba.
Owen journeyed to the United States’ military base at Guantánamo Bay in September as a nongovernmental observer for a motion hearing preceding the trial of five men accused in the 9/11 attacks. One of them, Khalid Shaik Mohammad, reportedly confessed – bragged? – that he masterminded the murders of 2,976 people who died when hijacked planes leveled the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York City, with a third jetliner striking the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., and a fourth crashing in a Pennsylvania field. The date of the trial itself hasn’t been decided.
KSM, as he is known, is believed to have been third in command of al-Qaida when he was captured in Pakistan in 2003.
There, in the courtroom at “Gitmo’s” Camp Justice – next door to the prison that made “waterboarding” a household word – sat five men accused of the most horrific single-day attacks the world has ever known. Owen could see each of the defendants clearly from her seat behind the glass wall in the observation area.
“The very first day, they were looking right through the glass at us as we were watching the proceedings,” she said. “That’s when it hit me: These are the ones who are responsible for 9-11.”
And one day in court, Mohammad made deliberate eye contact with Owen.
“He gave me a thumbs up,” she said. She wasn’t amused. Support and kinship would have to be found elsewhere.
At the same time, such defendants command a certain fascination, just as did Saddam Hussein to FBI agent George Piro, a former Ceres resident who interrogated the former Iraqi dictator before Hussein’s execution in 2006. The 9/11 terrorists’ trial arguably is to this era what Nuremberg represented in trying Nazi crimes after World War II. Owen wouldn’t have missed the opportunity for the world.
“It’s such a surreal experience to have breathed the same air as these monsters,” she said.
She learned about the observer program while attending a Secret Service school a year ago. Owen applied, wrote an essay and learned she was 14th on the waiting list. Then, several months ago, she learned she would be going sometime this summer, and expected it to happen in July. But the proceedings were delayed because the Gitmo prisoners engaged in a hunger strike.
Finally, on Sept. 13, she arrived at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where she met up with a group of 100 or so people who would travel together to Cuba. The judge and staff, the defense counsels, subpoenaed witnesses, the prosecution and staff all flew together, joined by the nongovernmental observers of which Owen was one. Others included officials from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Judicial Watch and other groups. She was the only local-level prosecutor among them.
“It was a very liberal crowd,” said Owen, noticeably to the right of the left politically. “I thought, ‘Am I going to make it out alive?’” she joked.
When she attended a barbecue hosted by one of the defense attorneys their first night at Gitmo, she quipped, “Am I going to be on the menu?”
In talking with the host, she thought about those who jumped to their deaths from the burning, melting, collapsing Twin Towers – and the families who still mourn them – and wondered, “How do you defend these guys (terrorists)?”
She met Maureen Basnicki, the widow of a businessman who died during the attacks. She met the lead prosecutor, Gen. Mark Martins, and even went jogging with him early one morning.
It’s all about due process, she determined, about making sure the trial – this one being a military commission – is conducted fairly so the verdict will withstand appeal. In fact, the Islamic defendants were given prayer time while in the courtroom, hanging their prayer mats on the back of their chairs during the proceedings “to make them look regal,” she said.
Owen lived for a week with three other women in a tent at the Guantánamo base, getting one day to sightsee when the proceedings were canceled due to an illness. Otherwise, she witnessed attorneys arguing a defense motion to delay the pretrial process because of technological issues involving missing files and defense emails that went to the prosecution because of the glitches. The judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, denied the motion Oct. 1, more than a week after Owen and the others returned to the States.
What did she learn there that will help her in the courtroom here?
“Every night, our paths crossed at the restaurant,” she said. “I’d see the prosecutors with the 9/11 (victims’) families, and Gen. Martins consoling Maureen (Basnicki) and assuring her that justice will be done.”
She recalls Basnicki saying, “Of course, I’m here. This is my trial.”
“It made me think that when I’m dealing with domestic violence or murder victims’ family members, it is their trial,” Owen said. “I need to have better communication, making sure they have their voice.”
She looked directly into the eyes of accused terrorists, including one who reportedly admitted to being the architect of 9/11. She also has looked into the eyes of their victims’ family members.
Justice is justice, whether in a military base camp in Cuba or in courthouse in Modesto.