By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009
A new, high-security courthouse in Newport News, Va., could be the site of terrorism trials for some Guantanamo Bay inmates, including the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, if the Obama administration sends cases into the federal courts, law enforcement sources said.
Prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia are competing with the Manhattan U.S. attorney for the opportunity to prosecute high-profile cases, including those of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his co-conspirators, the sources said. Such cases have traditionally been brought in New York or at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, where Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and other terrorism defendants were convicted.
But the area around the Alexandria courthouse, less than 10 miles from the White House, has recently grown dense with hotels, restaurants and luxury apartments, which prompted an outcry from Alexandria officials opposed to housing detainees. "It's gotten heavily, heavily congested, and there are security issues," said one federal law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because an interagency task force has not decided where to try Guantanamo inmates.
In response to the concerns about Alexandria, the U.S. Marshals Service is preparing security plans for possible trials at the Newport News courthouse, a sleek brick-and-glass building in a semi-industrial area. The courthouse, which opened last year, was built under the Pentagon's anti-terrorism force-protection standards, which specify requirements such as blast-resistant walls to protect from truck bombs.
Alexandria remains under consideration for trials, along with federal courthouses in Richmond and Norfolk, although they also present security issues: Both are downtown, with the Richmond facility several blocks from the Virginia Capitol and the Norfolk courthouse surrounded by hotels and near a mall and sports arena.
President Obama has vowed to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by January, and the Justice Department recently began sending the files of about 30 detainees to U.S. attorney's offices in Alexandria, Manhattan, Washington and Brooklyn. Prosecutors are trying to determine which terrorism suspects can be tried in federal courts, Justice Department sources have said, and each office is working with Defense Department prosecutors to decide whether some cases should be assigned to military commissions.
Justice Department officials have said they expect each of the four prosecutors' offices to end up with a handful of high-profile criminal trials. The department declined to comment this week on which courthouses detainees might be tried in, as did the Marshals Service.
Trials will bring intense security, wherever they are held. The 2006 death penalty trial of Moussaoui turned the neighborhood around the courthouse into a virtual encampment, with heavily armed agents, rooftop snipers, bomb-sniffing dogs, blocked streets and identification checks.
Richard Cullen, a former U.S. attorney for Virginia's eastern district, said Newport News is best prepared to cope. "It's a new courthouse designed to take into account security needs. And it's not in a residential area," said Cullen, who chairs the McGuireWoods law firm in Richmond.
Cullen said Guantanamo inmates could be held at the nearby Naval Station Norfolk, one of numerous military facilities in the sprawling area known as Hampton Roads.
The Newport News courthouse sits next to a shipyard about a block from the James River and is set back about 50 feet from the street to accommodate federal security guidelines. Its only high-profile case has been the recent bankruptcy proceedings of former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, who pleaded guilty to running a dog-fighting ring.
Kim Lee, a spokeswoman for Newport News, said the city would work "with the appropriate federal agencies to ensure that any trial that takes place here runs as smoothly as possible."
Although federal officials cited security as the reason for possibly moving trials from Alexandria, a change of location could bring other benefits for the government's case against the terrorism suspects. The same experienced prosecutors could travel elsewhere in the state, and jury pools in Newport News, Richmond and Norfolk are generally more conservative than those in Northern Virginia, which could make convictions more likely. Legal experts have said convictions of Guantanamo inmates are by no means certain because of their treatment and other evidentiary problems.
Alexandria's jury pool, which draws from throughout Northern Virginia, was considered more conservative than New York's after Sept. 11, which is one reason major terrorism cases came to Alexandria then. But Northern Virginia has been increasingly turning to Democratic candidates, with Obama racking up nearly 60 percent of the region's vote last year.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.