Robert Precht still remembers the night someone accused him of helping terrorists murder more people. He was riding the subway after a disturbing day at trial. A photo of a dead pregnant woman had made the jury cry that afternoon. The explosion inside the garage of the World Trade Center had burned the pattern of her sweater into her shoulder and back. Precht was lost in his thoughts on the subway later that evening, when a man who recognized his face from the newspapers approached him.
“You’re one of the lawyers for the Arabs, aren’t you?” the man asked angrily.
“Yes, I am,” said Precht.
“Well, how are you going to feel,” the man said, his voice rising, “when you get these murderers free, and they go out and commit another crime? And they kill more people?”
The man was screaming at this point. Precht decided to get off the subway immediately. As he dashed up the stairs and into the night, he remembers he could still hear the man yelling after him.
It's a horrific memory -– one of many Precht has of serving as a federal defender for Mohammad Salameh. Salameh, an illegal Palestinian immigrant, was one of four defendants charged with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
“It was a grueling, bruising experience for me, professionally and personally,” Precht said in a phone interview. “It was just a very difficult case.”
As a federal defender, Robert Precht represented Mohammad Salameh, one of the four men charged in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Precht remembers the trial as a "bruising experience," both professionally and personally.
Precht is now in Beijing, many years removed from that case. He promotes legal reform in China with the Public Interest Law Institute. He remembers the first World Trade Center bombing in February 1993 as a harrowing experience for defense lawyers, setting off a fear of Muslims that has only worsened since 9/11 -- which he says has made it even tougher to be a defense lawyer for accused terrorists today.
Defense lawyers who represent terror suspects wrestle with a myriad of obstacles when they take on these cases. They face an adversary that has more staff to plow through the massive volumes of documents in these cases, one that has more investigators to comb foreign countries for evidence and who has more time to prepare its case. But defense attorneys say perhaps their greatest challenge is the public perception that a terrorism lawyer is a terrorism sympathizer.
“I think the hardest thing about terrorism cases is the attitude that some people have that by defending someone accused of terrorism, you are somehow endorsing terrorism,” said David Ruhnke, one of the top federal death penalty lawyers in the country. “If you represent someone accused of murder, nobody goes around saying, ‘Oh look, he believes in murder.’”
Ruhnke represented one of the men charged with the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and he advised military lawyers when 9/11 defendant Ramzi bin al-Shibh went before a military commission at Guantanamo. He says he still has not been the target of any particularly harsh verbal abuse for his role in these cases, but some of his colleagues haven’t been so lucky.
Some have received death threats -- like Ron Kuby. Kuby’s been a defense lawyer in the Southern District of New York for almost 30 years. In the mid-1990s, he helped defend Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman –- the “Blind Sheikh” -– who got life in prison after trying to blow up the World Trade Center, the United Nations headquarters and other city landmarks. Since then, Kuby has been on several terrorism cases.
“Really, the greatest challenge is that everybody in the country has been so tainted by the government’s account of your client’s alleged wrongdoing that everybody thinks he’s guilty and looks at you as a collaborator,” says Kuby. “Wow, it’s exciting at first. But very quickly thereafter, the death threats come. Your family doesn’t like what you’re doing. You’re not making any money at it. And you’re saying to yourself, ‘Is this worth it?’”
But Kuby says it’s always been clear to him why he gets involved in these cases. “The power of the government needs to be countered,” he said. “Not because the government is evil, but because even the best people with the best of intentions can’t be trusted with unchecked power.”
These lawyers say a lot has changed since the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which opened the modern era of terrorism. It took only seven months after that bombing for the case to reach trial, and here we are nearly nine years after 9/11, wondering whether the 9/11 detainees will ever receive a civilian trial.
“We now have people talking about removing the criminal justice system altogether as a means of counterterrorism,” said Joshua Dratel, who was the first civilian lawyer at Guantanamo when he represented David Hicks, the Australian who was captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and named an enemy combatant.
“It’s harder because there’s so much pressure on people politically to have results,” said Dratel. “Results now mean convictions. People don’t think the system works if there are acquittals. And that’s really a significant problem because what you’re up against is an environment where jurors, I’m afraid, will err on the side of caution by convicting, rather than the rule of reasonable doubt, which means you acquit.”
After his bludgeoning experience defending one of the most infamous terrorists in the country’s history, Robert Precht says the most important thing he learned was that the system works. Precht says that what the 1993 World Trade Center bombing trial proved was that terror suspects can be prosecuted, convicted by a jury of civilians, and locked up. He says trying terror suspects before military tribunals instead will lead to results without integrity. He points to the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as an example.
“If KSM is tried in a military tribunal, I don’t care how much the judges will try to give him a fair trial, it’s going to be suspect,” says Precht. “And I can guarantee that people around the world are going to say, ‘That wasn’t a real trial. That was a kangaroo court. And we can’t accept it.’ And we have to ask ourselves, what do we want? Do we want people around the world to say we gave these people a fair trial, or do we want to say we put these people in a kangaroo court?”