Edward MacMahon Jr., a criminal defense lawyer who was thrust into the global spotlight as part of the legal team in the 9/11-linked case against Zacarias Moussaoui, dubbed the “20th hijacker,” that became a test of how a civilian court could handle a major international terrorism prosecution, died March 12 at a hospital in Fairfax County, Va. He was 62.
Mr. MacMahon had cancer in his head and neck, said his stepdaughter, Adela Evans Griswold. He lived in The Plains, Va.
From his offices in a converted bungalow in Middleburg, Mr. MacMahon became a leading proponent of allowing U.S. civilian courts to handle sensitive terrorism trials related to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He believed that open trials could showcase American jurisprudence and serve to undercut extremist views.
He also offered blistering criticism of the military commissions at Guantánamo Bay to try “enemy combatants.” Mr. MacMahon argued that the process was set up too quickly after 9/11 and put defense teams into uncharted territory with no previous case law or constitutional precedents as a guide, creating what he called “trial by whim.”
“Guantánamo is now the worst brand of justice in the world,” he told a University of Virginia gathering in 2009. “I call it the New Coke of the law.”
Mr. MacMahon made dozens of trips to Guantánamo as part of the John Adams Project, a group formed to provide experienced defense lawyers to assist military attorneys with some of the most high-profile detainees. Among Mr. MacMahon’s clients were alleged senior al-Qaeda operatives Walid bin Attash and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
“The court-martial system is not a system that is set up to try complex, conspiracy, multi-defendant or really even death penalty cases,” he said. “But the Justice Department … has vast experience in these kinds of cases. And they are the people who, I believe, should be in charge and prosecuting these cases.”
A phone call on Dec. 11, 2001, changed Mr. MacMahon’s career. On the line was U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton, who once had Mr. MacMahon as a clerk in the 1980s.
They had remained close, and Hilton was seeking another court-appointed lawyer to help defend Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent who was indicted in December 2001 on charges of conspiring with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks.
“[Hilton] called me at my office and told me that he had a client for me,” recounted Mr. MacMahon. At the time, he had no experience in terrorism-related cases and was mostly known for defending employers in discrimination lawsuits. He had watched the first reports of the Sept. 11 attacks on a TV at a courthouse in Warrenton, Va.
Mr. MacMahon was soon holding strategy sessions with the defense team (which eventually grew to a five lawyers) and was meeting with Moussaoui, who was arrested in August 2001 after he raised suspicion at a Minnesota flight school by asking about learning to pilot a Boeing 747.
Prosecutors claimed that Moussaoui was part of the wider 9/11 plot and was the only major suspect caught on U.S. soil. Even before a trial could begin, Moussaoui was attempting to turn his arraignments into political theater. It was a hint of what was ahead.
Moussaoui would fire his defense team and act as his own counsel, leaving Mr. MacMahon and his colleagues in a standby role for side issues — and in case the patience of federal Judge Leonie M. Brinkema finally wore out.
Moussaoui repeatedly claimed he was not part of the 9/11 plot but vowed allegiance to al-Qaeda. He smeared his sidelined defense team as secretly trying to undermine him. He called the judge the equivalent of a Nazi officer and mocked her as a “grandnanny” in reference to how she wore her gray hair pulled back in a bun.
“We never thought he was competent to defend himself,” Mr. MacMahon told reporters. “We’ve always had concerns about his mental health.”
In 2005, after more than three years of hearings, appeals, delays and challenges, Moussaoui’s guilty pleas were accepted by the court. Earlier pleas were rejected over doubts about whether Moussaoui understood the process. (The 9/11 Commission report said Moussaoui’s precise role in the attacks remained unclear.)
The next phase was whether Moussaoui would face death by lethal injection. Prosecutors sought it. Mr. MacMahon appealed to the jury in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. Give him life in prison instead, he asked.
Moussaoui “aspires to martyrdom,” Mr. MacMahon told the jury in March 2006. Sentencing him to death, he said, would make him a “a smiling face on a recruiting poster for Osama bin Laden.”
It was a closing argument that was posted verbatim on legal websites and later studied in law schools. Mr. MacMahon had to convince jurors that his client’s guilty pleas were pure deception. “A tall tale, a whopper,” he said.
Moussaoui “was trying to write a role for himself into history,” Mr. MacMahon said, “when the truth is, he was an al-Qaeda hanger-on and a nuisance to everybody.”
After the jury decided against the death penalty, Moussaoui sat motionless for a moment. Then he yelled: “America, you lost … I won!”
Mr. MacMahon looked over the crestfallen prosecutors. If fate was different, he would have been sitting in their places. In 2001, he was among the nominees to become U.S. Attorney for Eastern Virginia. He didn’t get it.
If he had, “I could have easily been prosecuting that case,” he said.
Born in a cab
Edward Brian MacMahon Jr. was born July 30, 1960. His mother went into labor prematurely and he was delivered inside a cab somewhere between Annandale, Va., and Columbia Hospital for Women in the District. His father, an orthopedic surgeon at another hospital, was not in the taxi to help.
Mr. MacMahon graduated in 1982 from the University of Virginia and in 1985 from Tulane Law School in New Orleans. He clerked for Hilton from 1985 to 1986 and then moved into criminal law practice. The attention from the Moussaoui case brought other high-profile clients.
Mr. MacMahon defended Ali Al-Timimi, a prominent Muslim religious leader based in Falls Church who was charged in 2004 with allegedly encouraging his followers to support the Taliban in Afghanistan and join struggles against the United States. In 2005, a federal jury in Virginia convicted Timimi, who was sentenced to life in prison.
His marriage to Karla Evans ended in divorce. In addition to his stepdaughter Griswold, of Alexandria, Va., survivors include his partner, Stephanie Salvatori of The Plains; two children from his marriage, Edward MacMahon III of Jackson, Wyo., and Alexandra MacMahon of Middleburg; three brothers; and two sisters.
Outside of his professional life, Mr. MacMahon often celebrated his Irish heritage. He played tapes of Gaelic language lessons in the car. He roamed County Kerry and played many rounds of golf at Ballybunion. On trips to Guantánamo, he would often bring back the same gift: T-shirts from the base’s only Irish-style pub, O’Kelly’s.