Guantánamo military court may seek plea deals in 9/11 cases rather than trials After 20 years of failure, the U.S. military court in Guantánamo is admitting a 9/11 trial may never happen. Instead, the defendants may plead guilty, serve life in prison and avoid the death penalty.

Guantánamo prosecutors are exploring plea deals in 9/11 case after years of setbacks

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The September 11 attacks happened more than 20 years ago, but there still has been no 9/11 trial to hold the people accused of that tragedy responsible. Now the U.S. government is acknowledging there may never be one. Settlement talks are underway between defense attorneys and prosecutors to have the 9/11 defendants plead guilty rather than face a jury. NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer has been following this case for years and joins us now. Hey, Sacha.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Who are the defendants who might be getting these plea deals?

PFEIFFER: These are the five men accused of helping arrange the hijacking of those four airplanes that ended up killing almost 3,000 people on 9/11. The most notorious is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. They've been held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for well over a decade. And the goal has been to bring them to trial before a military jury and give them the death penalty to execute them. And many victim family members want that. But now negotiations are happening to instead have them admit guilt, avoid capital punishment, and probably instead get life in prison.

SHAPIRO: Why are these negotiations happening now after so many years of attempts at holding a trial?

PFEIFFER: Ari, it is so hard to convey how dysfunctional this military court is. It's basically been stuck in place for years. Having lawyers fly back and forth to Cuba is massively inefficient. They're still fighting over what evidence can be introduced and over basic constitutional questions. There's also a long COVID delay. And this is still the pre-trial stage. Meanwhile, the court and prison at Guantanamo have cost U.S. taxpayers more than $6 billion. So some people stopped believing long ago that a trial was ever going to happen, and they consider settlements a sensible outcome. I called a former legal adviser to Guantanamo, Gary Brown, who actually recommended 9/11 plea deals years ago. And here's what he said.

GARY BROWN: I think realism is starting to set in and just exhaustion. After so many years, the potential that the prosecution would be able to achieve a capital sentence that would then survive an appeal is very low and still years away.

PFEIFFER: Plus, it's an ideal time for a new approach. There's a new judge, a new chief prosecutor, a new chief defense counsel. Just this month, one of the lead defense attorneys asked to quit. Also, President Biden has said he wants to close Gitmo, and there's less Republican opposition to that than there used to be.

SHAPIRO: You said earlier that these talks are an attempt for the defendants to plead guilty. They would avoid capital punishment and would probably get a life sentence. Is there a chance they could receive lighter sentences than life in prison?

PFEIFFER: There's a chance. Now, I cannot imagine an outcome where someone like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would not get life without parole. He is the architect, allegedly, of the 9/11 attacks. But some of the others claim they had much lesser roles. And keep in mind, Ari, they've already been in prison for about 20 years, and they were tortured in custody. So it's possible some of them could get more lenient sentences.

SHAPIRO: Where would they serve their prison time?

PFEIFFER: That's a key detail that would need to be worked out. If the government wants to shut down Gitmo for good, they can't stay there. But right now there's a law that says no Guantanamo prisoners can enter the U.S. for any reason. But if that's repealed, they could serve their time in the federal supermax prison in Colorado. Or they could go to a different overseas location, but that's not a simple process because the U.S. would have to find countries willing to take them.

SHAPIRO: Have we heard from the families of 9/11 victims who've been waiting more than two decades for a resolution here?

PFEIFFER: Yes. And, you know, some of them are inevitably upset that these defendants could escape the death penalty. But many family members are tired. They're frustrated. They're disappointed that the military court has been such a failure, so settling the cases would at least make this end. Here's Terry Rockefeller, whose only sibling died in the World Trade Center attacks.

TERRY ROCKEFELLER: I mean, the alternative to not working out plea agreements is to return to the absolute broken-down process that we've lived with for 10 years.

PFEIFFER: And she also points out that even if there ever is a trial that results in convictions, the appeals would last for years.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer, thank you.

PFEIFFER: You're welcome, Ari.

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