Attorneys for Libyan terrorism suspect Ahmed Abu Khattala asked a federal court Tuesday for more time to review evidence after adding a death-penalty expert to the team.
U.S. District Judge Christopher R. Cooper of the District agreed to postpone a scheduled Wednesday hearing to May 19, as both sides requested, to continue preparing for the trial of the suspected ringleader of the September 2012 attacks against U.S. outposts in Benghazi, Libya.
Cooper’s order continues a series of expected delays in the closely watched case, which presents federal prosecutors in the District with the rare but sought-after challenge of handling one of the country’s most important terrorism trials and presents defense attorneys with the unusual prospect of a death-penalty case in the nation’s capital.
Abu Khattala was indicted in June for the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. U.S. Special Forces captured him in June during a raid in Libya.
Abu Khattala pleaded not guilty in the fall to charges eligible for the death penalty, including murder, conspiracy and destroying a U.S. facility. The U.S. government has called Abu Khattala the commander of the Ubaydah Bin Jarrah militia, which sought to establish Islamic law in Libya.
Prosecutors have turned over more than 17,000 pages of material, most of it classified, but expect to produce thousands more within the next week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael C. DiLorenzo wrote in a joint motion with Assistant Federal Public Defender Michelle Peterson.
Meanwhile, Khattala’s public defender team has added three attorneys since January who have had to obtain security clearances: Eric Leslie Lewis and Jeffrey D. Robinson of the Lewis Baach law firm, and New York-based death-penalty expert Richard Jasper.
Federal law requires that capital defendants be appointed at least one experienced death-penalty lawyer. Since Congress reinstated the federal death penalty in 1988, only a handful of eligible cases have gone to trial in the District, and no D.C. jury has imposed a death sentence.
As a result, federal defenders reached out to Jasper, who has represented 30 such clients , including two federal defendants, mafia boss Vincent Basciano and ex-postal worker Ronald Mallay, who was sentenced to life for racketeering and murder in the Eastern District of New York and elsewhere.
Lewis’s firm specializes in international investigations, with clients including Middle Eastern governments and Arabic-speaking Guantanamo detainees. Robinson, formerly with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, has a background in civil rights, government affairs work and post-conviction capital defense.